The Irish Mail on Sunday
ONE IN A BILLION BALE WILL FEEL PRESSURE OF LA DECIMA AT REAL
Can Welsh wizard Gareth Bale and Ronaldo deliver coveted 10th European Cup to Real Madrid?
IT IS the most expensively assembled forward line ever to contest a Champions League final and Real Madrid are desperate for Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to give them their money’s worth in Lisbon on Saturday and finally deliver the club’s 10th European Cup.
The strike-force the Spanish have dubbed the ‘BBC’ — Bale, [Karim] Benzema and Cristiano — was assembled at a cost of £187million, with Bale and Ronaldo alone arriving for £165m.
Madrid’s overall spend since the turn of the century is more than £1.2billion (£999m alone in the past 12 years), an extraordinary outlay but one that has delivered a solitary European Cup back in 2002.
Bale and Ronaldo’s mission against city rivals Atletico is to make it more than just one in a billion and give Real a slice of history as the first club to win Europe’s elite competition 10 times.
The intense pressure Real put themselves under every season to deliver the biggest prize is felt by all at the club, but perhaps less by their two galacticos — Ronaldo because he won the European Cup in 2008 and Bale because he is still in his first season in Madrid. The Welshman has already put one trophy in the cabinet with his sensational late winner against Barcelona at the Copa del Rey final in Mestalla.
Yet nothing explains president Florentino Perez’s short fuse with his coaches quite like the failure even to reach a European Cup final since 2002. He went down to the dressing room after Real blew La Liga last weekend against Celta Vigo and let it be known that he was unhappy at the way they were finishing the season. It was seen as a clear sign of how the pressure had got to him. This season could be historic — or no more than just a year they won the Spanish Cup.
There are rumours Perez will walk away if Real do not win in Lisbon. If he does not go, coach Carlo Ancelotti might well have to leave instead. Someone will have to pay.
With Ronaldo missing yesterday’s 3-1 league win against Espanyol, when Bale scored Real’s opener, there are also concerns that central defender Pepe is unlikely to be fully fit for the final. With Xabi Alonso ruled out through suspension, Madrid’s dependable spine is severely splintered.
If Pepe fails a late test, Raphael Varane will step in against Atletico, but the young French defender has hardly played this season having failed to recover from a knee operation. Asier Illarramendi will step in for Alonso after an unconvincing first season following his €30million signing from Real Sociedad.
THE hope among Real Madrid supporters is that none of this will matter because Bale and Ronaldo will work their magic on the Champion League’s meanest defence and paper over the other cracks that have appeared in recent weeks.
As Pep Guardiola lamented after Real Madrid embarrassed Bayern Munich in the semi-finals: ‘They are footballers but they are also supreme athletes; even if you had the fastest defence in football you wouldn’t be able to stop them.’
Bale and Ronaldo hit it off from day one at Madrid when, in a wellmeaning if slightly forced photoopportunity, Ronaldo greeted new boy Bale in the club car park on his first day of training.
Bale moved into the same exclusive ‘La Finca’ neighbourhood as Ronaldo on his new team-mate’s advice, renting a property for about £9,800 a month no more than 500 metres from the Portuguese player’s house.
‘Cristiano is the boss here,’ said Bale in one of his first interviews in Spain. ‘He is the best in the world and I want to learn from him.’
The only time the pecking order has changed has been when Ronaldo has been injured and Bale has stepped impressively into his shoes as the team’s goalscoring talisman.
The greatest example of that came with his solo goal in that Copa del Rey final. The Welshman got a taste of the delirium that such successes provoke in Spain’s capital when he was welcomed by thousands of celebrating supporters during a 4am open-top bus ride through the city.
‘It was mind-blowing to see how many people there were that night in the middle of a week,’ he said. ‘It gives you a taste and you want more; if we can win more trophies then it will be a lot bigger.’
Next Sunday has already been pencilled in as a day of celebration in the ‘Real’ half of Madrid if they can emulate the side led by Zinedine Zidane in Glasgow in 2002 and carry off the European Cup. Zidane will be on the touchline at Lisbon’s Estadio de Luz as Ancelotti’s assistant, having been instrumental in bringing Bale to the club in the first place.
‘Zidane’s one of the best players ever and he was there to welcome me on the first day,’ said Bale, who has also praised former Spurs teammate Luka Modric for the way he has helped him settle in his first year. But the special relationship appears to be with Ronaldo. ‘Since the first step that I made into Real Madrid he’s been amazing with me, giving me advice on and off the pitch.’
Ronaldo insists the admiration is mutual. ‘ He has played brilliantly in all three competitions’ he told UEFA last week. ‘I am able to speak English with him and we’ve just naturally become friends. I always liked him as a player and now that I know him personally, I like him even more.’
Both men are perfect galacticos because in spite of all the glitz and glamour on the pitch there is little cause for gossip off it.
Ronaldo’s preference for 300 sit-ups in the private gym of his seven-bedroom mansion over any late-night ‘fiestas’ is famed. Bale has limited his appearances in the city to official club trips such as the players’ visit to the Madrid Masters tennis last week. There has been no partying but that will change next weekend if, after just eight months, Bale helps land the trophy Real have been chasing for 12 years.
The weekly Spanish lessons in a private classroom at the Valdebebas training ground have yet to prepare Bale sufficiently for him to face the local press in their language, but there is one word he knows all too well: ‘La Decima’, the 10th.
They have paid more than a billion to win it and they believe in six days’ time it will be theirs. The last €100m spent on Bale may even turn out to be the most important of all.