Sunday 25 June 2017

Bale fulfils first season promise with European win

Gareth Bale squeezes a header into the top corner to put Real Madrid ahead in the second-half of extra-time. Photo: REUTERS/Paul Hanna
Gareth Bale squeezes a header into the top corner to put Real Madrid ahead in the second-half of extra-time. Photo: REUTERS/Paul Hanna

Sid Lowe at Estadio da Luz

"I haven't just come here to play in the Champions League, I have come here to win it."

So said Gareth Bale on the day he was presented as an £85m Real Madrid player. And win it he did. But that does not even begin to tell the story. This was barely believable. What a way to end your first season in Spain. Rescued by a goal from Sergio Ramos on 94 minutes, Real Madrid eventually won 4-1 against an Atletico Madrid team that could hardly walk, their legs hurting almost as much as their hearts.

Marcelo got the third and Cristiano Ronaldo added the fourth from the penalty spot, after Bale had scored the goal that effectively won La Decima, Real Madrid's 10th European Cup: their obsession.

Bale had already scored the winning goal in the Copa del Rey final. This was going to be even bigger, he had said. He was right. At the final whistle Ronaldo clenched his fists and looked to the heavens, a winner in Lisbon. Bale embraced him. They had done it, 12 years later.

Atletico had already been defeated when Ronaldo and Marcelo scored; Ramos had plunged the knife in and Bale had finished them off. Ronaldo and Marcelo made the scoreline as cruel as the result. The game was 20 minutes into extra time and all over the pitch exhausted players stumbled to the finish line; Atletico, in particular, had nothing left to give. Penalties loomed. Angel Di Maria escaped down the left. His shot squirmed up off Thibaut Courtois and Bale was there to head it in at the far post.

He sprinted to the corner flag and skidded to his knees. Madrid knew now that they were European champions. Bale's year had ended in an extraordinary triumph; the world's most expensive player winning the world's greatest prize. For so long here, that had seemed impossible. For so long, Bale must have wondered if his lasting memory of this final would be a lament.

Bale's moment seemed to have came after 32 minutes and it was the first opportunity of the game. Tiago's pass was misplaced and Bale cut it out near the centre circle. Suddenly, he was accelerating, space opening before him, the defence backing away. Towards the area he went, drifting inside away from Miranda and Tiago, who sought to recover his error and almost committed another as he stuck out a foot. Bale was inside the area now and with Courtois off his line, he tried to sidefoot into the far corner.

This was the kind of moment players dream off. But Bale did not connect well and the ball faded away. His face was eloquent; a grimace engulfed it.

Five minutes later Diego Godin gave Atletico the lead. In the Estadio da Luz, some supporters recalled Jose Antonio Camacho, the defender who raced through and missed Real Madrid's best chance when they lost the 1981 final to Liverpool. There was a British player in that Madrid team too: Laurie Cunningham had played despite not being fully fit.

Bale's first year in Spain had gone extraordinarily well. He had come into this game with 21 goals and 17 assists and he hoped that this would be even bigger. Bale had made it to the European Cup final in his first season; it had taken Madrid over a decade. He was only the eighth Briton to play a final with a foreign club. Kevin Keegan, Laurie Cunningham, Steve Archibald and Chris Waddle had fallen at this stage. For a long time, unable to really influence this match, his one opportunity left untaken, it seemed like he would join them. Instead he joined Paul Lambert, Owen Hargreaves and Steve McManaman as winners.

Madrid's best performances this season had been against Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey. Gerardo Martino had described Real as fantastic athletes and the way his side played suited them. Bale knew that this would be a different tactical prospect. He described

Atletico as "very well organised defensively and very, very physical", "a bit mad", and "very intense".

He added: "If you watch the away game it was almost like a wrestling match at some points." As if to reinforce the point, his first touch here came after just fourteen seconds. As he received the ball, he was dumped on the floor by Filipe Luis.

Bale had made it to the European Cup final in his first season; it had taken Madrid over a decade

Chances were few until late in the second half when, at last, with Madrid trailing 1-0, the pressure built and built. Still though, the Welshman was denied. With 20 minutes to go he received the ball a couple of yards outside the area but his low shot, with the outside of his left foot flew wide. Six minutes later, he escaped on the right and ran diagonally into the area. He had almost reached the six-yard box. This was it. But Bale struck the turf as he shot. And then in the very, very last minute Ramos rescued Real Madrid.

The exhaustion took over now. There were players on both sides who could barely walk. When they went down, it took a long time for them to get up again. Penalties approached. It had always been a possibility, of course.

"Would I take one? If I am chosen, you have to step up," Bale had said. "There is a lot of pressure but we want to win it, and if that means taking a penalty, you have to." He did not have to, after all. In the dying minutes of a dramatic final, the Welshman was there again. He headed in the goal that made him a European champion.


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