Gareth Bale ready to prove worth as Real seek elusive prize
In the last frantic knockings of David Moyes’ botched summer transfer window, Gareth Bale was offered a choice between Manchester United or Real Madrid.
As he looked around a jammed press room at the Allianz Arena yesterday, Bale might have reflected that he would have had an easier introduction to football in Manchester but he would not have had this.
“I am a little bit nervous, everyone gets a little nervous,” he said weighing up the second leg of a Champions League semi-final against a Bayern Munich side who are supposed to play the best football on the planet, but who find themselves 1-0 down.
“It is such a big game, after all, but these are positive nerves. If you want to win trophies, you have to play against the big teams, the great teams.”
Bale’s goal in the final of the Copa del Rey against Barcelona, which stands comparison with Ryan Giggs’ FA Cup strike against Arsenal in 1999, has convinced Madrid that he was worth £86m, although, significantly, his manager, Carlo Ancelotti, predicted he would have a better second season at the Bernabeu.
Lining up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in a strike force that cost £194m to propel Real Madrid towards the yearned for La Decima – their 10th European Cup – would make that point more eloquently than anything Bale could say in Munich.
He spoke English rather than Spanish and, like the most famous British export to the Bernabeu, he has David Beckham’s gift for saying nothing very much while doing it very politely.
Yes, he would enjoy playing alongside Ronaldo: “He is a massive reason I came to Madrid, to play with the best in the world.” But the press conference room in the Allianz Arena was not the time or the place for intimate confessions.
Many in Munich believe it is time for the Bayern manager, Pep Guardiola, to reassess his values. As one newspaper put it: “This is no place for tiki-taka. It is time to attack.”
Never before have Guardiola’s principles been under such scrutiny as they have been in the wake of the 1-0 first-leg defeat in Madrid. The statistics on the sheet handed out after the final whistle in the Bernabeu were mocking. Bayern had more than 70 per cent of possession, they had forced 15 corners to three and twice the number of shots as Real. And yet the only one that mattered was Benzema’s.
In the bowels of the stadium the sense of certainty that surrounded Bayern Munich’s attempt to become the first side since Milan in 1990 to retain the European Cup began to evaporate. The chief executive, Karl-Heniz Rummenigge, talked of turning Munich into “a hell” for Real Madrid, although as one wag put it, hell at the Allianz Arena was when they run out of Weisswurst at half-time.
On Saturday, after a 5-2 victory over Werder Bremen, Guardiola’s captain, Philipp Lahm, had spoken of Bayern having to “put their foot to the floor” and of playing with “heart and spirit”. Guardiola said that Franck Ribéry, who had been neutered in Madrid, was now “angry”.
And yet this will be a night when every fibre of Guardiola’s being will demand that Bayern Munich play like his teams always have. In 2011, his Barcelona were pitched against Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals and they beat them beautifully according to the values that he and the man beside him, his assistant Tito Vilanova, learnt at the academy at La Masia.
Now, Vilanova is dead and, although there will be a minute’s silence for the man who, too briefly, managed Barcelona, the most fitting tribute would be for Bayern Munich to reach a third successive Champions League final in a manner true to Guardiola’s beliefs.
And yet, although Real have never won in Munich, Bayern will probably fail, partly because they have fallen victim to their own success.
When Sir Alex Ferguson discussed his treble season he made one significant point. Manchester United won the Champions League in 1999 partly, he said, because the big games came so rapidly that his players did not have time to think about the history they were about to make.
Bayern won the Bundesliga in March and they have had far too much time. The intensity of their performances has waned dramatically and on Saturday Werder Bremen, a team almost 50 points behind them, counter-attacked well enough to embarrass them briefly in their own stadium as Werder took the lead.
Ancelotti has Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema and Angel di Maria. He is not going for a goalless draw, although when it was put to him that he would adopt the cautious catenaccio (door bolt) tactics perfected in Serie A, he smiled: “Catenaccio is not a bad word. I am an Italian, we like catenaccio, we won a lot with catenaccio.” But everyone in that room knew that tonight he would go for the kill.