Tuesday 20 February 2018

Vindicated Bale aims to deliver elusive Decima

Helping Real win 10th crown can be fairytale end to maiden season, writes Jason Burt

Quiet and popular, Gareth Bale can end a fairytale debut season at Real with a Champions League winner's medal next weekend. Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Quiet and popular, Gareth Bale can end a fairytale debut season at Real with a Champions League winner's medal next weekend. Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Jason Burt

If Tottenham had got their way Gareth Bale would currently be a Manchester United player, waiting for confirmation that Louis van Gaal is his new manager following a disastrous campaign.

Instead he is preparing for the Champions League final with Real Madrid, who face Atletico Madrid in Lisbon's Estadio da Luz on Saturday.

Had Bale joined United, they might have enjoyed a far better campaign and David Moyes might still be in a job. But when United came calling last August and were willing to pay £100m – far more than the world record £86m Real would pay – it was too late.

It was not that the Madrid deal could not be gazumped, but simply because Bale would not change his mind. He had set his heart on Real, encouraged by his agent Jonathan Barnett, and would not budge. United offered more – and even offered to take Emmanuel Adebayor off their hands – and Spurs wanted to accept. But Bale would not listen.

The episode highlights Bale's determination and also his stubbornness, key reasons why his first season in Spain has been a success. When the 24-year-old speaks he appears shy, introverted, uncomplicated and a little nervous but as Spurs and United found out last summer when he has made up his mind, he cannot be dissuaded.

When Spurs first got wind of Real's interest in Bale, which was broached as Carlo Ancelotti had dinner with club president Florentino Perez to discuss his own move to the Bernabeu, there was a genuine belief he could be persuaded to stay for one more year. The message from Joe Lewis, Spurs' backer, was that Bale was not for sale.

But Andre Villas-Boas, Spurs' then head coach and someone who had a strong relationship with Bale, detected a change in the player. It was no surprise, then, when Bale returned after his summer break to inform Villas-Boas he wanted to go.

There was talk of a transfer request; Bale was injured in pre-season and did not train; his professionalism was questioned and Spurs eventually drew out the saga until the final day of the transfer window so determined were they to sign the replacements they wanted with the money from the deal.

It meant Bale's first few months in Madrid were stuttering as he struggled with fitness. Bale protested that he did not think about his price tag but it was always going to weigh heavy on his shoulders. Bale was even dismissed as "irrelevant" by the Spanish press after an underwhelming Clasico debut. His problem there was always a simple one: there was a better player already at the club in Cristiano Ronaldo.

But Bale is astute enough to know that the best way to deal with Ronaldo is to defer to him – for now. That process started with the compliments he showered on his new team-mate on his arrival and have continued throughout the season. He cited Ronaldo as his role model.

Nevertheless it was no coincidence that Bale's greatest moment in a Madrid shirt, so far, was that brilliant winning goal in last month's Copa del Rey final against Barca when injury prevented Ronaldo from featuring. That night he was confirmed as a galactico.

Both Bale and Ronaldo are expected to be fit next weekend as Real chase that elusive Decima – their 10th European Cup – having waited 12 years since Zinedine Zidane's wonderful volley beat Bayern Leverkusen at Hampden Park. That moment, incidentally, was when Bale claims he fell in love with Real.

Even at his unveiling as a Real player Bale knew the importance of the European Cup to the club and its supporters. "I hope to be able to help the club win la decima," he said, in Spanish. That wait has become an obsession which is why Perez has broken the world transfer record three times in pursuit of it.

At that unveiling Bale was accompanied by his family, including his partner Emma Rhys-Jones, who has moved out to Madrid with their toddler daughter, Alba Violet. The young family live in La Finca, a gated development where he can count Iker Casillas, Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos among his neighbours. Ronaldo lives 400 yards away.

Slowly but surely Bale has settled. He plays golf and has Spanish lessons twice a week and has become a quiet if popular member of the squad in a dressing-room. Twenty goals and 14 assists in 42 games have helped even if Real have ended the league season appallingly.

It means that Saturday's final is given even greater significance not just for the club but also, quite possibly, to determine whether or not Ancelotti remains its coach.

The Champions League has been a salvation for Real. Bale will already feel that his move has been vindicated but how remarkable it would be if he ended this season a Champions League winner having brought back the trophy to the wealthiest club in the world at his first attempt.


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