Tuesday 20 March 2018

Paul Hayward: Bale fails to find the magic as Dragons' blood, sweat and toil comes up short

Wales' Gareth Bale after the match at the Stade de Lyon Picture: PA
Wales' Gareth Bale after the match at the Stade de Lyon Picture: PA

Paul Hayward

The 1986 Diego Maradona comparison was pushing it a bit far, but for Wales to reach the final of a European Championship - repeat, final - Gareth Bale was going to have to lead them to Paris on Sunday by setting himself apart from the crowd.

Not with spectacular individual acts necessarily, but with consistent game-shaping precision from his play-making position behind Hal Robson-Kanu, the chosen striker. We have seen players inspire teams to titles before.

Maradona at the 1986 World Cup is the prime example, with Zinedine Zidane in 1998 a few lengths behind. The difference is that those two icons wore the shirts of Argentina and France. Bale is the lodestar of a nation that last reached a tournament 58 years ago and prefers rugby to football, certainly in the more densely populated south.

However hard he tried, Bale found himself after 52 minutes back in the underdog stance, with Portugal looking like the much bigger nation again, despite their generally unconvincing form. The cause was a powerful Ronaldo header from a short corner, and a poke-in by Nani after Ronaldo mis-hit a shot two minutes later.

Without lapsing into a Superstar A v Superstar B analysis, it must be said that Ronaldo got first run on Bale with a header that displayed all his brilliance. He taught himself to score with his head at Manchester United because he felt it was a gap in his game, especially in the Premier League.

Here he took a short run-up and used all his years of conditioning (as well as expert timing) to rise higher than James Chester and bury the ball.

For Wales's campaign to turn so quickly and cruelly at the hands of two ex-Manchester United regulars was hard to take. But in both instances Ronaldo was the catalyst: a role he has seized for himself in life. Bale has won two Champions League titles with Real Madrid - the most recent of them in May, when he scored in a penalty shoot-out against Atletico.

He cost €100million, more even than Ronaldo, his main adversary here in Lyon. Bale inhabits a swankier world than modern international football.

Yet there has been a sense throughout this tournament that he has been driven by more than fame and wealth. He came to France representing friendship, soil, blood.

He was always the team talisman. Then he became the statesman too. And with Aaron Ramsey confined to the stands by suspension, he was obliged to carry out the work of two men. The two, that is, of true Champions League calibre.

This Wales side is a smoothly functioning machine. The shape is right, the attitude is spot-on, everyone knows his job and is happy to do it. Standard players have performed like very good ones (Chester, Chris Gunter).

Decent players have performed like stars (Joe Allen, Robson-Kanu). All because the chemistry and application and mentality are right.

Bale, though, is the one that offered the best hope of transcendence, the magic in the mix. He is the one who allows the rest of them to think they always have a chance with him around. For his own part he has never shown the slightest inclination to disappoint them in that hope.

At the other end Ronaldo was in his usual matinee idol mood and determined to stick to the centre-forward's task. Bale on the other hand tried to pose a much greater range of threats. A run from the halfway line led him inside on to his favoured left foot but his shot was comfortably saved.

Now 26, Bale was excluded from five tournaments in the first 10 years of his career. His wait was nothing compared to Wales's 58 years in the shadows.

This week he recalled the days when he would have "nine weeks' holiday instead of two". He was not being wistful. He preferred it this way, with Wales in the thick of it, long after England, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland had gone home.

Toni Kroos, another colleague in Madrid, told him Wales would last three games in France: the group stage. Kroos had clearly not seen Wales play. They ended the first half with a better possession ratio than Portugal, who like to keep the ball on a string. They mixed things up, even trying a surprise routine from a corner-kick, with Joe Ledley drilling the ball low to the edge of Portugal's box and Bale sprinting towards it to shoot at 45 degrees. The angle defeated him but the audacity was impressive and caught Portugal cold.

After the interval, though, Portugal struck with that left-right combination to stun Wales. Now it was Ronaldo leading a bunch of unlikely finalists.

Portugal have advanced without trace at this tournament. Ronaldo throwing a reporter's microphone in a lake was their most newsworthy moment.

Fixated by his moods, and appalled by Pepe's cheating, we forgot to say just how ordinary Portugal had looked.

But Ronaldo's drama queenery never destroys his game. He is always waiting with the coup de grace. He has never deviated from the talent he has for ruining other people's dreams. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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