Bale winning over Real fans as he finally begins to shine
Gareth Bale delivered again. Two beautifully weighted crosses, first for Karim Benzema, then Cristiano Ronaldo, provided the foundation for another Real Madrid victory but there was also a tough La Liga lesson for the world's most expensive player in the humble surrounds of the Estadio de Vallecas on Saturday night.
There will be many different challenges for the Welsh wizard in his new life in Spain. Stamping his identity on an El Clasico, hitting the standards expected by the home support at the Bernabeu stadium, helping Real reassert the domination their birthright demands both at home and in Europe.
Then there is the grittier task of surviving testing away matches where Spain's lower classes are snapping at your ankles. And there are few more natural underdogs than Rayo Vallecano, the men from the unglamorous working-class suburb of Vallecas in south-east Madrid who currently prop up La Liga.
In the end, Rayo were desperately unfortunate not to draw some reward. Undaunted at falling three goals behind early in the second half, they struck back with two penalties from Jonathan Viera in the space of three minutes and, maintaining a fluid, attack-minded game, ran Real ragged for the final half hour.
"In the first half we scored two fantastic goals and had control," said Real coach Carlo Ancelotti, whose side clearly felt the loss of Xabi Alonso, just back from injury and withdrawn at half time. "But in the second half was a disaster and it is something we have to talk about in the dressing room."
Seven days earlier, Bale had been a peripheral figure in his first match-up with Barcelona. Then came the breakthrough, with two goals and two assists in Real's spectacular 7-3 destruction of Sevilla at the Bernabeu in midweek. Modest Rayo provided another stake for his talents, but also a warning of the tests La Liga can bring.
The 24-year-old sometimes cut an isloated figure, wide on the right in Ancelotti's 4-3-3 system. Getting into the game was not easy. Bale was closely watched by hard-working Rayo full-back Nacho Martinez, and other home players made sure there was no space for the surging runs inside and powerful shots that became his trademark with Tottenham last season.
During one pause in play on Saturday, Luka Modric and Alonso moved across for a tactical briefing. Then there are the darker arts. Bale received little protection from referee Alfonso Alvarez, with one blatant body-check from Nacho that left him on the ground and clutching his chest, going unpunished.
Yet then there are the match-winning moments of magic, where Real's £86 million investment, makes sudden sense. Real have defensive frailties, but there is little wrong up front where Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo are forming a potent attacking trident that has scored 10 times in the last two matches though they still trail leaders Barcelona by six points.
Ronaldo burned through Rayo's defences to give Real a third-minute lead before Bale's two big moments. Just after the half hour mark, Bale collected Alonso's pass and spun away from his marker, his pace carrying him clear on the right. The perfect right-footed cross left Benzema with the easiest header from close range.
Even better was to come three minutes into the second half. Flicking the ball away from his opponent, Bale dropped in an angled delivery timed perfectly for Ronaldo's run to the near post.
It was enough to again give Bale lofty ratings in the Spanish football press, just behind Ronaldo, who remains very much the arch-galactico with his 58 goals this year.
There was also praise from Jorge Valdano, Real's former sporting director, now a TV pundit. "It wasn’t just a case of putting the ball into the danger area, he put it on Benzema’s head. Left footed players are usually very left-footed but not Bale," he said.
That is a significant comment because Valdano was among those who questioned the need to sign Bale in the summer. And Bale is certainly winning over people in the early stages of his Spanish sojourn.
Seasoned Real observers say he is liked by the other players for his level-headed ways and willingness to muck in, although a certain nervousness has also been detected. He has the clear and public backing of Ancelotti, who has provided a calming influence following the internal ructions of the Jose Mourinho era. And because he was widely admired in Spain as a Premier League star, Real supporters are happy to give him the time he needs to settle.
There is also a belief that Bale will adapt his game to the closer marking and lack of space to run at in forward positions that typifies opponents' tactics when Real are in town. Real may have their failings, but Bale is already seen as a strength.