Gareth Bale's CWC rescue act the first step to Real Madrid rehabilitation
Gareth Bale found himself in the new position of much needed saviour on Wednesday night, after the often criticised Galactico saved Real Madrid from humiliation in their Club World Cup semifinal against Al Jazira.
A more entertaining than expected game at Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City Stadium saw Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema miss chance after chance, before the locals took a shock lead through Brazilian forward Romarinho just before half-time.
Even after Ronaldo made it 1-1 after the break, Benzema twice hit the post from close range, and Blancos fans and pundits grew ever more nervous as Al Jazira continued to threaten on the break.
Bale entered with just 10 minutes remaining, and with his first touch he calmly guided home a Lucas Vazquez cross to send Madrid through to Saturday afternoon's final against Brazilian side Gremio.
The goal also led relieved observers back in the Spanish capital to quickly rethink their opinions on the importance of the Wales international, whose only other game time in the last three months was a similar rescue job in the Copa del Rey against third-tier Fuenlabrada.
Wednesday morning's Marca cover was: "Desert Storm -- Bale saves Madrid in a surreal game."
"Real Madrid qualified for the Club World Cup final beating Al Jazira by the bare minimum after a truly extraordinary game," their report read. "They had enough chances to complete a hammering, while at the same time showing a scarily shaky defence, against a joke opponent, a guest invitation to the tournament. In the end, with their survival in damage and their image damaged, it was the permanently convalescing Bale who eased the sickness immediately after entering in the 81st minute, when the ghost of extra-time was promising more suffering for the European Champions."
Wednesday morning's AS editorial had claimed: "We can suppose that Zidane will even give some playing time to Bale, who in the end is one of the boss' [club president Florentino Perez] luxury trinkets, and on occasions like this it is especially advisable to show him off. The opponent, of course, does not frighten."
And, a day later, their front cover had the luxury trinket smiling on front cover, and its match report was headlined: "Bale cleans up the mess".
This is a new situation for Bale. Last August, pundits previously supportive of a player closely associated with Perez had turned against him, and many hoped he would be sold to Manchester United. Persistent calf and thigh muscle problems through the autumn led even his last few supporters to assume his spell at the Bernabeu was almost over.
That Zidane waited until time was almost up before sending Bale on at 1-1 against Al Jazira did not suggest a huge amount of confidence either. Jose Samano wrote in El Pais that it was a last throw of the dice, with all other options exhausted.
"With the game tied, Zidane took off Isco and a disorientated [Mateo] Kovacic in favour of Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio," explained Samano. "When that did not work he threw on Bale and crossed his fingers. And Bale, blessed by the gods, with his first touch slotted home after a run by Lucas."
Julian Ruiz in El Mundo was more scathing of Zidane's decision-making.
"The crazy French coach kept Benzema, a horror show forward, on the pitch until the 80th minute, when everything was now on the line," he wrote. "What an embarrassment against this team! Thankfully it occurred to him to send on Bale, who avoided the horrific embarrassment ... Bale, semi-lame, his spirits crushed, had enough light to shine in the black desert night. He flew in the Emirates like the phoenix from the flames."
Bale's rebirth has led to such a turnaround that AS' Carlos Forjanes argued the Welshman should start against Barcelona on Dec. 23, even though the player said afterwards he needs to be patient as he is not 100 percent fit.
But things change quickly in football, and given Barca's eight-point lead in La Liga, Zidane and Florentino need something dramatic to happen in El Clasico. Bale's return looks very well timed indeed.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan