Bale finally starting to shine after stuttering start to Madrid career
Two months into his Spanish adventure Gareth Bale understands one thing loud and clear.
Wherever he goes with Real Madrid, somebody will remind him how his heavy price-tag marks him out.
Warming up before kick-off on Saturday in Vallecas, home of Rayo Vallecano, the lowest-budget club in Spain's top tier, Bale was welcomed by a banner from the home fans: "We're poor but we're proud, and we've got balls like fists."
Suburban Vallecas and the city-centre Santiago Bernabeu arena stand barely seven miles apart. Yet Real and Rayo are first and third-world, economically.
The combined cost to Madrid in transfer fees of the front three in their line-up, Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo stretches towards £220m. That's about 32 years' worth of Rayo's current annual budget.
Rayo are the club who bit off the hands of Swansea City last year, when offered £1.5m for their then top goalscorer, Michu; a club where salaries for many players went unpaid for months and months during Michu's last season there; where the idea of a ground constructed with spectators behind both goals is a luxury postponed until deep into never-neverland.
At Vallecas, the 'Bukaneros', the ultras who put earthy anatomical slogans on their banners, look up the pitch only at a wall, the backdrop behind the opposite goal of a compact, ageing venue.
It was attacking the populated end that the men with balls like fists staged their comeback, to go alarmingly close, from Bale's point of view, to sharing the points equally between La Liga's Croesus club and the one without a spare centimo. Madrid eventually escaped 3-2 winners.
From where Bale is looking, Spanish football already seems nothing like the stereotype of a top division where all but two fixtures a season for its wealthiest two institutions, Madrid and Barcelona, are walkovers.
He has just enjoyed his best week with Madrid, full of plaudits and gratitude from colleagues.
Yet twice in four days his team turned a 3-0 lead into a helter-skelter scramble to remain in command.
Bale had played for a full 90 minutes for the first time in a Madrid shirt last Wednesday, at home to Sevilla. His first goals at the Bernabeu put Madrid 2-0 ahead by the 28th minute.
A Ronaldo penalty then extended the lead. But by the interval, Sevilla had scored twice, and would have put four past Madrid had Ivan Rakitic converted a second-half penalty, one of two awarded to the visitors during what Bale described as a "crazy" night. It finished 7-3.
At Rayo, the pendulum swung less violently, though Madrid again gave away two penalties, both converted. Bale again completed 90 minutes, establishing his return to match-fitness, something he conspicuously lacked in the seven weeks after his record transfer.
In that period, Bale had mostly been deemed irrelevant to Madrid's inconsistent start to the season.
In their biggest, toughest games – defeats in the derby against Atletico and in the super-derby against Barcelona – he contributed little and, both times, was substituted early.
Since the latest two fixtures, madridistas fete him as the motor of a rollercoaster that has brought them, over 180 minutes, 10 of their 30 league goals so far.
Bale, operating on the right of the front three, scored two and set up two against Sevilla and assisted for another two goals against Rayo.
And, in some eyes, he broadened his repertoire. A direct Bale free-kick, albeit via a deflection, swirled in against Sevilla – a milestone in that Bale had been allowed to take it, ahead of Ronaldo.
At Vallecas, Bale also arched in a beautiful cross, after a powerful gear-shift to move beyond his marker, for Benzema to register his third goal in two matches.
Bale crossed the ball not with his stronger foot, but with his right – an instrument most madridistas, when Bale signed, would have valued as worth about 10pc, tops, of his total £100m value.
That assist, pinpointing the forehead of Benzema, drew high praise from the newspaper ABC.
"Bale is starting to provide service from the right as frequently as Michel, with his counter-banana kicks," they wrote.
A 'counter-banana'? That's an inswinging cross.
Michel is the legendary right-sided midfielder from the successful Madrid teams of the mid- to late 1980s. Even David Beckham, after vintage nights issuing masterly crosses, right to left, as a Madrid 'Galactico', used very seldom to be honoured with comparisons to Michel.
Next stop for Bale is Turin, and Juventus in the Champions League tomorrow, with Madrid anticipating a contest far tauter than the 10 and five-goal see-saws that marked their Welshman's coming-of-age week.
Bale has a special status in Italy, thanks to his destructive, back-to-back displays against Inter Milan for Tottenham three years ago. Spanish football now has a better, first-hand idea of how devastating he can be.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)