Thursday 19 July 2018

Bale underlines value in latest Real Madrid 'remontada'

Real Madrid's Gareth Bale. Photo: Getty Images
Real Madrid's Gareth Bale. Photo: Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

Around these parts, they talk about the remontada - the comeback. It has an almost folkloric place in the history of Real Madrid.

The concept goes right back to 1976, when they overturned a 4-1 deficit in the European Cup against Derby County, winning 5-1 at the Bernabeu.

And ever since, the idea of the stirring finish has captured the Madrid imagination like little else.

Their latest escape act came on Saturday when they went 2-0 down against lowly Rayo Vallecano only to surge back for a 3-2 win.

Afterwards, all the plaudits were being reserved for the man who had inspired the comeback with two superb goals.

"Phenomenal," was the verdict of coach Zinedine Zidane.

"A spectacular player," said Lucas Vazquez, Real's other scorer.

Ahead of his return to England, Madrid is finally learning to love Gareth Bale.

Tomorrow night, in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Manchester City, Bale will play his first game on English soil since leaving the Premier League three years ago.

"I've scored a few times against them," he smiled. "It will be a very good game, for sure. I always loved playing in the Premier League. I still watch it and it will be great to go back."

Bale was injured when Real came to Anfield in 2014 and, unless you are a regular watcher of La Liga, the Bale that returns will be a strikingly different player from the one that left Tottenham in 2013.

He is broader, bulkier, more physically imposing. He is no longer just a tricky winger but a target man, too, and he has scored more headed goals this season than any player in the top five European leagues.

And for a club looking towards their post-Cristiano Ronaldo future, the Welshman is becoming increasingly indispensable.

Ronaldo was injured on Saturday, although he is expected to return tomorrow.

And in his absence, as well as that of captain Sergio Ramos, it was put to Bale that he had delivered a captain's performance.

"That's not for me to say," he said, a little awkwardly. "All I know is the team worked really hard. It doesn't matter who scored the goals."

You could scarcely imagine Ronaldo coming out with that. And it illustrates why Bale has become increasingly popular at Real, both inside and outside the dressing-room.

Arriving with a world-record price tag and stepping on to Ronaldo's turf, Bale was always going to have to work doubly hard to prove himself.

He struggled with injuries and form for much of his first two seasons. Yet, simply by getting his head down, immersing himself in Madrid life (his Spanish is rapidly improving) and producing when it matters, Bale is changing minds.

Injuries are still an issue: he has only just returned from his latest, yet his output has been nothing short of astonishing.

He now averages a goal every 87 minutes in La Liga. That is only marginally behind Luis Suarez and ahead of the three players generally regarded as the best in the world - Lionel Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo.

And so, the big question: can Bale eventually supplant Ronaldo when the great man moves on?

It may get answered sooner rather than later if Paris St-Germain can meet Madrid's asking price this summer, but until then Bale is doggedly carving out his own vital role.

Although he would prefer to play more centrally, Zidane has preserved the freedom Bale enjoyed under Rafa Benitez, so as well as swooping in off the right wing, he is dropping deeper to receive the ball or playing as a makeshift No 10, rather than simply making decoy runs for Ronaldo.

One of Real's mottos is nunca se rinde. Never surrender. You hear their players using the phrase all the time.

Their Champions League progress was secured by overturning a 2-0 deficit against Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals.

And after one of the most underwhelming campaigns in recent memory, they somehow arrive in England on the back on nine straight league victories.

They love a comeback tale at Real, and Bale's resurgence could yet be a remontada to top them all. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Suarez overtakes Ronaldo in Barca rout

Red-hot Luis Suarez became the first La Liga player to record four goals in two consecutive matches as Barcelona  stayed top of La Liga by hammering Sporting Gijon 6-0 on Saturday.

Suarez moved ahead of Ronaldo as the league's top scorer on 34 goals after netting four times, twice with penalties, in the space of 25 second-half minutes. The Uruguayan also completed the feat in Barca's 8-0 rout of Deportivo La Coruna last week.

Lionel Messi was also on the scoresheet, striking the opener after 12 minutes. Neymar added to Barca's tally, slotting away a penalty in the second half.

Meanwhile, Atletico manager Diego Simeone could be facing a three-game ban from the touchline after being sent off at half-time when he threw a ball onto the pitch from the technical area.

The referee asked Simeone who had lobbed the ball on, and sent the manager off after not getting an answer from him.

However, his side kept up their title hopes with a 1-0 home victory over Malaga thanks to a deflected goal by substitute Angel Correa in the 62nd minute.

In Germany, Bayern Munich - chasing a record fourth Bundesliga title in a row - sank Hertha Berlin 2-0 on Saturday.

However, they had to put the champagne on ice, as Borussia Dortmund beat VfB Stuttgart 3-0 to stay within striking distance of top spot.

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