‘Unstoppable’ Welsh wizard coming to terms with being hottest property on planet
As the plaudits and superlatives rained down on his young shoulders, Gareth Bale seemed rather embarrassed by all the fuss. Bale, the conqueror of European champions Inter, is rather less comfortable in front of a TV camera or a microphone than he is on the pitch.
The young Welshman will have to get used to it, however. A quick look at Uefa's post-match statistics demonstrate exactly why. They show that he ran more than anyone else on either team on Tuesday night, a total of 11,919 metres, or more than a quarter of a marathon.
What the numbers do not say was that Bale did most of it flat out, either dashing up the wing to torment Inter right-back Maicon, or galloping back to help out with his defensive duties.
His pace and ability are matched by his stamina and his willingness to run all game, attributes that are increasingly important. Bale's height and physical presence make him pretty much the complete package, Cardiff's answer to Cristiano Ronaldo -- minus the ego.
The big question is, how do you stop him? Luka Modric, who produced a near-perfect display of midfield virtuosity against Inter, has no answer. He described Bale as "unstoppable" and "unbelievable". The Croatian said: "I don't know how you stop Gareth. It's hard, if he plays like that. He's just been progressing in his game and it's unbelievable to watch him on the pitch -- he's so quick."
Stopping Bale proved to be beyond the capabilities of the canny tactician Rafa Benitez, Inter's manager, who failed to learn the lessons of San Siro a fortnight ago and was mercilessly punished for it at White Hart Lane.
Benitez should perhaps have paid attention to the way his old adversary Alex Ferguson went about keeping Bale shackled in Manchester United's 2-0 victory over Spurs last weekend. The key was never to let him get down the wing, but to force him inside into the more congested areas of the pitch, where there is less space for him to run at defenders, and he is being forced to use his unfavoured right foot.
Against United, though, he got a right-foot shot away when he was forced inside thanks to his remarkable pace which saw him cut across the defence. It was a concerted team effort from United: Rafael da Silva started the job, Wes Brown replaced him and then Paul Scholes came off the bench for Dimitar Berbatov to add defensive vigilance.
It had been a similar story when Tottenham drew 1-1 with Everton a week earlier. Phil Neville (33) squeezed the space and ensured Bale was never allowed to get up a head of steam down the touchline, aided by Seamus Coleman on the right side of midfield.
Teams will certainly find ways to defend against Bale, who suddenly came of age in the second half of last season. This time a year ago the Welshman could not get a game at Spurs. Then in January, Benoit Assou-Ekotto got injured and Bale deputised at left-back.
It was only towards the end of the campaign that Redknapp pushed Bale forward into midfield, a decision that has borne fruit both for Tottenham and for Bale, who in May signed an improved four-year contract.
But it was not until these two games against Inter that Bale's real potential was recognised. His hat-trick in the 4-3 defeat two weeks ago marked him out as a special player, and Tuesday's destruction of Inter made the 21-year-old winger one of the most coveted footballers on the planet, next season's must-have player, the envy of Europe.
The brutal manner in which he exposed the defensive flaws of Maicon, one of four Inter players on the recent 23-man short-list for the Ballon d'Or award, was simply breathtaking. As Bale's potential transfer value soared to around £30m, that of his eviscerated victim Maicon sank like a stone.
When the winger set up Peter Crouch for a volley, which the England man miscued, in the 24th minute of the club's seminal 3-1 victory, it was already the fifth time Maicon had been left trailing in his wake. And it only got worse. The Tottenham fans taunted the Brazilian by chanting "taxi for Maicon".
Publicist Max Clifford said yesterday Bale could make as much as £20m in endorsements and image rights over the next five years, but those closest to him said money is not his motivation.
His uncle Chris Pike, a former footballer with Cardiff City, said: "I know exactly how grounded he is. He just loves playing football. He's not motivated by money, he's not motivated by fame, he's just motivated by football."
Bale has been earmarked as a player of rare potential for some time. He made his Southampton debut at 16, and a month later earned his first full cap for Wales. Things did not always go smoothly, however. Huw Jennings, academy director at Fulham FC who oversaw Bale's development at Southampton, said: "For a couple of years at Southampton we doubted whether he would come through and emerge as the very strong talent he has become, but it's absolutely terrific to see his development."
Now Bale has to learn to cope with suddenly being a superstar. "I'm trying to keep my feet on the ground, keep concentrating and working hard in training and in games," he said on Tuesday night.
These kind of down-to-earth comments will delight his manager Harry Redknapp almost as much as Bale's destruction of Inter. (© Independent News Service)