Thursday 25 December 2014

Galactico Bale poised to shine in Cardiff home-coming

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Published 12/08/2014 | 02:30

Real Madrid's Gareth Bale during a training session at Cardiff City Stadium last night. Photo credit: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Real Madrid's Gareth Bale during a training session at Cardiff City Stadium last night. Photo credit: Nick Potts/PA Wire

For Real Madrid, tonight is a step into their new post-Decima era, with a team somehow even more packed with stars than it was three months ago. For one of those big names, though, it will be a step into the past.

It will be a significant evening for Gareth Bale, back in his hometown. The Cardiff City Stadium, where Real face Seville in the Uefa Super Cup, is a few miles away from Whitchurch High School, where Bale excelled at rugby union and cross-country.

Bale's last competitive game for Real was the Champions League final at the Estadio da Luz in May, and he played for them in the United States this summer. In December he will travel to Morocco to compete for the Club World Cup. For tonight, though, he is back in Cardiff. Bale will be the hero of the home crowd tonight, the local boy who has become world famous in the past 12 months. In his one season at Real, he scored decisive goals in the finals of both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. The header in extra time in Lisbon, putting Real Madrid 2-1 up against Atletico, was one of the most important goals in the club's history.

That was the moment Real had been waiting for since 2002, when they won their ninth European Cup at Hampden Park. They are in new territory but there has been no doubt this summer where the club's president, Florentino Perez, wants to take them: to a place with more stars, more glamour and somehow even more box-office appeal.

This summer, Real have bought the best player of the World Cup - James Rodriguez - and the best player of the best team at the World Cup - Toni Kroos - for a combined fee beyond £80m. Rodriguez and Kroos will both start tonight, with no place for Angel di Maria or Xabi Alonso who, like Sami Khedira, could well be sold in the next month.

It means a front six - of Kroos, Luka Modric, Bale, James, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema - that is remarkable for its quality, its fame and its combined cost of over £300m. What it rather lacks, though, at the cost of attempts to squeeze in as many famous players as possible, is balance. Alonso performed such a crucial role last year, protecting his back four and keeping the ball, and Kroos is simply not that type of player.

Ultimately, Real will probably have too much for Seville tonight. Unai Emery's side did very well to win the Europa League last year, beating Benfica on penalties in the final, but this summer they sold their best player, Ivan Rakitic, to Barcelona and have not replaced him.

Seville might not be able to exploit Real's open midfield but they may well sense a weakness in goal. Coach Carlo Ancelotti will pick Iker Casillas, despite a few months for club and country in which he has repeatedly betrayed the fact that, at 33, he is a goalkeeper in decline. "He deserves to play after everything he did in the Champions League last season," Ancelotti said last night.

If Casillas does not play well, however, he is likely to lose his place to Keylor Navas, the Costa Rican bought from Levante this month. Navas showed at the World Cup and, more importantly, over the last few years in La Liga, that he is a superior goalkeeper to Casillas and it will surely only be a matter of time before he is Real Madrid's first choice, as they continue their march into the future. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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