JONATHAN LIEW ON BALE

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - FRONT PAGE - Jonathan Liew in Madrid

Around th­ese parts, they talk about the re­mon­tada – the comeback. It has an al­most folk­loric place in the his­tory of Real Madrid. The con­cept goes right back to 1976, when they over­turned a 4-1 deficit in the Euro­pean Cup against Derby County, win­ning 5-1 at the Bern­abéu. And ever since, the idea of the stir­ring fin­ish has cap­tured the Madrid imag­i­na­tion like lit­tle else.

Their lat­est es­cape act came on Satur­day, when they went 2-0 down against lowly Rayo Val­le­cano, only to surge back for a 3-2 win. Af­ter­wards, all the plau­dits were be­ing re­served for the man who had in­spired the comeback with two su­perb goals. “Phe­nom­e­nal,” was the ver­dict of coach Zine­dine Zi­dane.

“A spec­tac­u­lar player,” said Lu­cas Vázquez, Real’s other scorer. Ahead of his re­turn to Eng­land, Madrid is fi­nally learn­ing to love Gareth Bale.

To­mor­row night, in the first leg of the Cham­pi­ons League semi­fi­nal against Manch­ester City, Bale will play his first game on English soil since leav­ing the Premier League three years ago. “I’ve scored a few times against them,” he smiled. “It will be a very good game, for sure. I al­ways loved play­ing in the Premier League. I still watch it and it will be great to go back.”

He was in­jured when Real came to Anfield in 2014, and un­less you are a reg­u­lar watcher of La Liga, the Bale that re­turns will be a strik­ingly dif­fer­ent player from the one that left Tot­ten­ham in 2013. He is broader, bulkier, more phys­i­cally im­pos­ing. He is no longer just a tricky winger but a tar­get man, too: he has scored more headed goals this sea­son than any player in the top five Euro­pean leagues. And for a club look­ing to­wards their postCris­tiano Ron­aldo fu­ture, he is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly in­dis­pens­able.

Ron­aldo was in­jured on Satur­day, although he is ex­pected to re­turn to­mor­row. And in his ab­sence, as well as that of cap­tain Ser­gio Ramos, it was put to Bale that he had de­liv­ered a cap­tain’s per­for­mance. “That’s not for me to say,” he said, a lit­tle awk­wardly. “All I know is the team worked re­ally hard. It doesn’t mat­ter who scored the goals.”

You could scarcely imag­ine Ron­aldo com­ing out with that. And it il­lus­trates why Bale has be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar at Real, both in­side and out­side the dress­ing room. Ar­riv­ing with a world-record price tag and step­ping on to Ron­aldo’s turf, Bale was al­ways go­ing to have to work dou­bly hard to prove him­self. He strug­gled with in­juries and form for much of his first two sea­sons. Yet, sim­ply by get­ting his head down, im­mers­ing him­self in Madrid life (his Span­ish is rapidly im­prov­ing) and pro­duc­ing when it mat­ters, Bale is chang­ing minds.

In­juries are still an is­sue: he has only just re­turned from his lat­est, yet his out­put has been noth­ing short of as­ton­ish­ing. He now av­er­ages a goal ev­ery 87 min­utes in La Liga. That is only marginally be­hind Luis Suárez and ahead of the three play­ers gen­er­ally re­garded as the best in the world: Lionel Messi, Ney­mar and Ron­aldo.

And so, the big ques­tion: can Bale even­tu­ally sup­plant Ron­aldo when the great man moves on? It may get an­swered sooner rather than later if Paris St-Ger­main can meet Madrid’s ask­ing price this sum­mer, but un­til then Bale is doggedly carv­ing out his own vi­tal role. Although he would pre­fer to play more cen­trally, Zi­dane has pre­served the free­dom Bale en­joyed un­der Rafael Benítez, so as well as swoop­ing in off the right wing, he is drop­ping deeper to re­ceive the ball or play­ing as a makeshift No 10, rather than sim­ply mak­ing de­coy runs for Ron­aldo. One of Real’s mot­tos is nunca se

rinde – never sur­ren­der. Their Cham­pi­ons League progress was se­cured by over­turn­ing a 2-0 deficit against Wolfs­burg in the quar­ter­fi­nals. And af­ter one of the most un­der­whelm­ing cam­paigns, they some­how ar­rive in Eng­land on the back of nine straight league wins.

They love a comeback tale at Real, and Bale’s resur­gence could yet be a re­mon­tada to top them all.

Ma­jor power: Gareth Bale heads in his first goal in Real’s comeback vic­tory

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