Just 38 days on from his match-winning performance in the Copa del Rey final, Gareth Bale once more demonstrated why he is the world's most expensive player as Real Madrid achieved La Decima
By Peter Fraser - Follow me on Twitter @PeteFraser_. Last Updated: 25/05/14 1:09am
"Lately, he has been terrific. Not just in the Copa del Rey final but he has scored so many important goals for us. He is a key player for us," suspended Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso told Sky Sports of his team-mate, Gareth Bale, before kick-off in Saturday night's UEFA Champions League final.
Indeed, including that trademark goal of pace and power which defeated Barcelona in the King's Cup on 16th April, Bale had produced 38 goals or assists in 43 matches in Spain since his record-breaking £85million move from Tottenham Hotspur last summer.
That those statistics were achieved having only made his first appearance in mid-September after being hampered by pre-season injuries makes Bale's contribution in his debut season with Real all the more impressive. He has embraced the pressure.
Bale, though, was not at his best against Atletico Madrid in 2014's Spanish derby European Cup final. For a long time in Lisbon, he looked like he was going to be reminded football is capable of cruelty as well as beauty. He was not allowed to express his craft by some superbly organised and committed defending.
However, class eventually tells. This is what the true greats do.
|Champions League final 2014||Goals||Shots||Shots on Target||Touches|
Twenty minutes into extra time, after Sergio Ramos' injury-time equaliser had cancelled out Diego Godin's opening goal of the night, Bale made it 2-1. Atletico would go on to unravel and lose their discipline in a 4-1 defeat but it is Bale's back-post header which will live in the memory. La Decima, Real's long wait for a 10th European Cup, defeating a derby rival, is the stuff of immortality.
As Alonso had said, Bale was an integral player for Real if they were to break down La Liga champions Atletico's stifling tactics at Estadio da Luz but, playing on the right of Real's attacking three in a 4-3-3 formation, the Welshman had it far from his own way.
Gareth Bale had just 17 touches (left) and played just 13 passes (right: short white; long black) in the first half
Sky Sports' Gary Neville said before the match began: "I think Atletico Madrid will prevent Gareth Bale from counter-attacking. You are removing one of his great weapons when you stop the space behind."
This proved to be exactly the scenario. Atletico did not sit especially deep, other than Miranda (No.23 in the below graphic) but their strong pressing, proved by their high possession-winning line and packed midfield, meant they suffocated Real in the first half. Bale was especially limited and touched the ball only 17 times in the opening 45 minutes as he was skilfully marshalled by Atletico left-back Filipe Luis. Only goalkeeper Iker Casillas had less touches than Bale for Real in that time.
Atletico won possession in high areas (left) and packed midfield (right) to frustrate Real
Neville said: "This type of game suits Atletico. They will want to stop the flow of the game and stop Real's quality players, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, from getting on the ball."
Bale's one big chance in the first half came in the 32nd minute, when he was gifted possession by Tiago on the edge of the centre circle before carrying the ball to the penalty spot only to scuff his shot. Neville said: "In the end, he made a real mess of it.". This was echoed by Neville's Sky Sports colleague, Jamie Carragher, who said: "Gareth Bale should score and do better."
Four minutes after Bale's chance, Atletico scored the game's opening goal through Godin.
Bale missed an opportunity in the 32nd minute after being given the ball by Tiago
One of the problems had been that Bale was not receiving the required service from Alonso's replacement in the centre of midfield, Sami Khedira, and this continued after half-time. Prior to his substitution in the 59th minute, German international Khedira did not play a single pass to Bale and played just one pass to Ronaldo.
Neville said: "Khedira has been poor on the ball. They need to try and get Luka Modric into those positions, receiving the ball 30 yards from goal, he will feed Ronaldo and feed Bale with far more quality."
Real improved after Khedira's exit and Bale had three opportunities in the space of seven minutes between the 71st and 78th minute.
Bale's goal was the only one of his four shots which was on target during the 120 minutes
However, firstly, Bale was guilty of controlling Marcello's cross with his hand before, secondly, he lashed a fine shooting chance wide from the edge of the box after being teed up by Ronaldo. Neville said of the latter: "[It is a] wonderful, wonderful opportunity and he drags it."
Next in those three chances, after speeding past Godin and cutting in on his strongest foot, Bale scuffed a decent opening. Again, Neville said: "He did not get it out of his feet and awkwardly hit it with the outside of his left foot."
But Bale is too good not to finally hurt an opponent. In the 110th minute, he slid away on his knees after showing all his athleticism and endurance to head into the back of the net after Di Maria's wonderful jinking run and shot had been saved by Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Real were in front and Bale, who ended the game draped in the Welsh flag, had become the first man from his country to have scored in a European Cup final.
Bale still ended the 120 minutes of the final having had only 55 touches of the ball and his goal was the only one of his four shots on the night which found the target. Bale and Real, though, will not care and the man himself perhaps best summed it up after lifting the European Cup.
"The price tag means nothing, for me. If I came here for a penny, I came to the club to play in big competitions and win trophies like we have this season. The move has paid off this year and we want to win more now," said Bale. He added: "This is what every footballer dreams of, winning the Champions League. It does not come any bigger than that in club football."