JONATHAN LIEW ON BALE
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