Bale wonder goal lifts Madrid to glory
Real Madrid 2 Barcelona 1 - Copa Del Rey Final
Gareth Bale last night paid off a huge chunk of his transfer fee. With extra-time looming, the Welshman picked up the ball just inside the Real Madrid half and ran at the Barcelona defence, before slipping the ball under Jose Pinto into the corner of the net.
It was a magnificent match-winning contribution from the former Spur, a man who had been doubted as being able to hack it in the games that count.
And as his goal took the cup to the capital, it confirmed what we had all been hearing: the era of Barcelona was coming to an end. Though crisis is a relative term.
Indeed what David Moyes would give for a crisis like Barcelona's. In the cup final, in third place in the league, having done the double over your greatest rival, it is the sort of disaster he would love to be experiencing.
But when you climb high, the fall is precipitous. And for Barcelona over the past week, the response to defeats in the Champions League and La Liga has been damning. Even the previously untouchable Lionel Messi has been cast as a villain, his statistics in the defeat against Granada at the weekend, in which he officially undertook the least amount of running apart from the goalkeepers, the first piece of evidence for the prosecution. Not that Messi was the only target. "Tataclysm" was the headline in 'El Mundo', casting the most serious of aspersions on the tactical nous of head coach Tata Martino.
What was soon evident as the game got under way is that Barcelona are being found out. Everyone has known how they play for years and been unable to do anything about it. This season – which is threatening to be the first since 2008 in which they have not won anything – tika taka is being unpicked.
Perhaps as the principal architects Xavi and Andres Iniesta have aged, even sides as modest as Granada are giving them the run-around. Atletico did it in the Champions League by charging at them like dervishes whenever Barca had possession. And Atletico's Madrid neighbours appeared to have been watching.
The issues surfaced within 10 minutes. Madrid – hassling, snarling, snapping into the tackles – won the ball off Xavi high up the pitch. They then counter-attacked with electric pace. Bale quickly moved the ball forward to Isco who switched it across to Angel Di Maria.
The Argentine, who may well have been offside, moved into the Barcelona area and calmly stroked the ball past Pinto into the corner. Madrid were one up before Barca had even appreciated that someone had the audacity to challenge them.
The goal exposed the Barca flaws that have plagued them this season. Without Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, they are bereft of command in defence, while Pinto is no adequate replacement for Victor Valdes.
Of course, Barcelona did not give up. For sure, largely in the person of Messi, they still have the personnel to dazzle. They passed the ball constantly, trying to find an opening. But when one came, they didn't not have the wherewithal to exploit it. Ten minutes after Madrid's opener, a delightful cross by Jordi Alba found Neymar perfectly positioned to equalise. But the Brazilian tamely headed wide. It was typical of his underwhelming contribution.
As the second half got under way, Barcelona tried to slowly unravel their opponents as they had done so successfully in the past.
If their light was dying, they were not going to go gently. But every time Cesc Fabregas or Xavi started something, Madrid seemed to break it up and launch an attack. On one, Bale twisted and turned and slammed a good left-foot shot inches wide. On another, a terrific upfield gallop by Pepe was only stopped by Javier Mascherano's Argentine chop. On a third, Karim Benzema saw a fizzing shot deflected wide.
But when Barcelona came back, it was in the most un-Barca-like fashion. On 68 minutes, a corner found centre-back Marc Bartra, whose magnificent header powered past Iker Casillas. Bartra celebrated by ostentatiously kissing the badge on his shirt, still a believer.
But then came Bale. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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