Gareth Bale's return to form helps Real Madrid carve open Borussia Dortmund
DORTMUND, Germany -- Three thoughts on Real Madrid's 3-1 win over Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday in the UEFA Champions League.
1. Champions Madrid show true colors at Dortmund
The last time a Champions League game took place in Dortmund, it was that surreal occasion against Monaco, a postponed game played the day after their team coach was attacked by a bomb. Against Real Madrid on Tuesday night, things weren't so strange. In fact, they were as they ever were, as UCL holders Real ran out 3-1 winners over a Borussia Dortmund side who now face a battle to escape the group stage.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice and Gareth Bale got one, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pulling one back for the home side. This was one of those games where Real showed why they have won this trophy three of the last four years: They were clinical, merciless and brilliant.
The game started at a frantic pace, with both sides flying at each other like a couple of wolves who hadn't been fed in a few days. Dortmund had a cross cleared off the line, while Real threatened through a brilliant Dani Carvajal run and a slightly misplaced Ronaldo cross. Dortmund quite justifiably howled their grievances when Sergio Ramos briefly took on the role of a volleyball player and batted down a Maximilian Philipp cross with his hands; the referee thought for a while and consulted one of his assistants but ultimately turned down the appeals for a penalty. The ball might have been going in, too, so Dortmund missed out on a man advantage, a penalty kick and thus probably a goal.
Inevitably, Real took the lead shortly afterward. Bale hasn't been in the best form of late, and manager Zinedine Zidane has had to offer words of reassurance more than once, but Bale's sensational first-time left-footed volley into the top corner from a Carvajal cross was a lesson in how to combine control and power.
Dortmund broadly controlled possession for the rest of the half, but Real had the better chances. This theme spilled over into the second period, and it didn't take long for Real to double their lead. Bale again did fine work, going down the left and crossing low to Ronaldo, who swept home a left-footed finished. It looked alarmingly easy, but when it's Bale and Ronaldo, the most extraordinary feats can seem straightforward. It was Ronaldo's 108th Champions League goal, and the 70th different match in which he's scored.
Dortmund fans generally don't need an excuse to make themselves heard, but they were given cause to make some noise a few minutes later when Aubameyang gave them hope. His volley with the outside of his foot after a cross from the left was a little reminiscent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and it was unfortunate for Dortmund that some of Aubameyang's earlier finishing wasn't of the same standard. But the goal cut Real's lead to 2-1.
Dortmund again chipped away, and manager Peter Bosz made all three of his substitutions in good time to try to haul them back into the game. But with 11 minutes remaining, the game was done: Ronaldo was set free down the right side of the box, was allowed time to pick his spot, and then did so with stunning power and accuracy. That's the thing about this Real team: They can give you a scrap of hope, but then smack it out of your hand and stamp all over it.
Dortmund now have an uphill task. On zero points after two games while Real and Tottenham, who beat APOEL 3-0, have six each. No more slip-ups allowed.
2. Bale back near his best
At various points this season, it's almost seemed as if Zidane has been making excuses for Bale. His return to full strength after missing the end of last season due to injury has been fairly deliberate, and he has looked nothing close to his best in the early weeks of the season.
There have been glimmers, though. A quite brilliant, hamstring-busting run and delicate finish against Real Sociedad a few weeks ago suggested there was life in those legs yet, and his performance in Dortmund gave further indication that he is indeed back.
The goal was one thing, a shot of feather-touched brutality, a brilliant piece of timing which showed you don't always have to absolutely lash the ball to get power behind it. But in his general play he excelled too, setting up Ronaldo's first goal and generally dovetailing very well with the Portuguese. Real's formation -- a midfield diamond with Ronaldo and Bale as a sort of partnership of false 9s -- relied on both men pulling wide to create space through the middle, and running into that space themselves. Bale did that well, and might have got himself another goal before he went off with what looked like cramp.
Bale could be coming into form at just the right time for Real. Given their stuttering start to the season and the absence of Karim Benzema, they need all the forward help they can get. Bale, if he can stay healthy, might be able to provide it.
3. Dortmund defensive record exposed
Dortmund have been in brilliant form the first few weeks of the Bundesliga season, scoring 19 goals in six games, and not conceding until the 66th minute of their sixth fixture, against Borussia Monchengladbach last weekend.
But increasingly the Champions League is providing evidence that this opening salvo may have more to do with their domestic opposition than their own blistering quality, particularly on the defensive side. Bale's volley was a brilliant piece of technique, but he was given as much of the penalty area as he needed to line up the shot. Equally, Ronaldo was given an excess of space at the near post to strike his first, and plenty of room to pick his spot for the second. Add this to the three goals Dortmund conceded against Tottenham in their first UCL game, and their start to the campaign suddenly doesn't look so rosy.
Even apart from those goals, Dortmund looked shaky in defence. At one point, Sokratis Papastathopoulos lingered 2 yards behind the rest of his defence and then frantically claimed offside, despite very clearly being the one playing Ronaldo on. A short time later the same defender backed off as if Ronaldo, running at an admittedly decent pace, was a train rather than a man in his 30s.
Ultimately, it was a surprise that Dortmund kept Real to only three goals.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.