It took three minutes for Gareth Bale to make an impact on his return from a fortnight’s absence with an injured calf against Sevilla last Saturday.
The second-half substitute controlled a crisp pass up the right flank from Sergio Ramos, playing in his new, temporary midfield role, turned back to face his own goal, dribbled a couple of yards back upfield to lose his marker, tapped the ball three feet ahead of him to give him the space to measure the angle then clipped the perfect, arcing cross to the edge of the six-yard box.
There, Cristiano Ronaldo took a stride and a half backwards and steered an extraordinary, curving header over Sergio Rico that looped in at the far post.
Having celebrated his hat-trick with his customary operatic restraint, holding his ‘matador as superhero’ pose for a few moments, Ronaldo ran the breadth of the field to embrace Real Madrid’s head coach, Carlo Ancelotti. His colleagues joined him and Bale was embraced by his manager, patted on the back by Pepe, hugged by Ronaldo and had his hair ruffled by Ramos.
If the excellence of the ‘assist’ was overshadowed by the wonder of the finish among the wider audience, the precision of Bale’s piercing contribution was warmly appreciated by his team-mates. This is supposed to be a player suffering from difficult second season syndrome who had become the ‘scapegoat’ for supporters’ exasperation and the ‘fall guy’ for the Madridista media.
None of the criticism he has faced – from being booed at the Bernabeu in January for shooting instead of passing against Espanyol, to the trolling on Twitter, polls in newspapers showing respondents wanted him to be dropped and the whistles after defeat by Schalke in the last 16 Champions League home tie – has been fabricated.
But it has been exaggerated, taken out of context and used as evidence that a bid from an English club this summer is more likely to be successful despite Bale’s desire to stay and the determination of the president, Florentino Perez, to keep him.
Manchester United may well want to take him to Old Trafford this summer, but from Real's point of view, selling him makes no sense. There is no one Real Madrid could buy who has Bale’s qualities. The penetrating pace, dribbling, crossing and shooting adds an extra dimension to the way teams can play. The more options the better but every manager would make directness principal among them.
Bale is not the first Real Madrid player to be booed by a section of his own fans and nor is he the only one who has been catcalled this season. In the past Alfredo Di Stefano, Santillana, Michel, Raul and Zinedine Zidane, cornerstones of the club’s hall of fame, have been jeered by some supporters after a bad performance. Ronaldo got the bird last year and this while Karim Benzema has endured at least as much as Bale.
It’s what some, and we need to emphasise only some, Real Madrid fans do. if you win 32 league titles and 10 European Cups, and invest hundreds of millions of pounds in players, then small wonder that some of your fans suffer from a petulant sense of entitlement. If you promise them the Earth, the moon is an inadequate disappointment. Yet they can’t, and don’t, win the league every year even if they act as if they should.
Bale has scored 13 league goals in 28 starts this season, not an excessive decline from his 15 in 24 in 2013-14, but he did go nine matches without scoring from late January this year to mid-March. The reason for this, and for much of Real Madrid’s stuttering performances if not results, has been Luka Modric’s injury-wrecked season. He was out for four months from November and hurt his knee again two weeks ago.
Since the sale of Xabi Alonso in the summer, Modric played in the key defensive midfield role, a deep playmaker, with James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos ahead of him. Sami Khedira, Asier Illaramendi and Lucas Silva, who have been tried out in the role, have struggled because they do not have Modric’s vision or range of passing and Khedira, in particular, looks a shadow of the player he was in 2012. The tempo had been poor and there was a lack of fluency in their attacking play. They look better both defensively and going forward when using Ramos as a stop-gap there.
Bale, who is at his devastating best on the counter-attack – as we saw in last year’s Copa del Rey final and the 4-0 Champions League semi-final victory over Bayern Munich – has not enjoyed many opportunities to deliver the sucker-punch this season. Juventus will be as cagey with him on Tuesday night and will try to squeeze the space he uses to breach defences.
Pop psychologists (and Thierry Henry ) tell us that he is inhibited by Ronaldo, caught between serving his master and doing his own thing. It’s a neat analysis, that the whole galactico project, a cult of personalities, is being undermined by a cult of personality.
But it doesn’t ring true, as his cross on Saturday demonstrated. There’s not much wrong with Bale that turning back the clock to cancel the hubristic sale of Alonso or the return of a fully fit Modric, who knows him and his game so well after all those years at White Hart Lane, would not put right.