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Thursday 14 December 2017

Paul Hayward: Arrival of Bale can drive Ronaldo to even greater heights

Cristiano Ronaldo congratulates Gareth Bale after the Welshman scored his first goal for Real Madrid on Wednesday
Cristiano Ronaldo congratulates Gareth Bale after the Welshman scored his first goal for Real Madrid on Wednesday

If Gareth Bale scores two, Cristiano Ronaldo will help himself to three, and so on until nobody in Madrid is in any doubt about who is the real "commander on the field of play", as Fifa's Sepp Blatter described the world's second most expensive footballer.

The first, by a few million euros, is Bale, dismissed as "irrelevant" by the Spanish press after an underwhelming Clasico debut, but applauded for his brace in a 7-3 victory over Sevilla that stirred the ghosts of Real Madrid's greatest European Cup win, by the same score, against Eintracht Frankfurt in Glasgow in 1960.

A landslide midweek league win bears no real comparison to the era-defining pageant of 53 years ago, except that Ronaldo's 22nd hat-trick offers a chance to say that he is the great lone star at a club who like to arrange them in clusters. His relatively meagre Spanish trophy collection of one La Liga title and a Copa del Rey only emphasises the point that Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane were infinitely more fortunate than Ronaldo with the quality all around them.

The 1950s and 1960s gang who dominated European football were built around not only Di Stefano and Puskas but Francisco Gento, Raymond Kopa and Jose Santamaria. The second great wave of galactico-buying brought to the Bernabeu not only Figo and Zidane but the Brazilian Ronaldo and David Beckham.

Roberto Carlos was already there, as was Raul, who took 16 years to reach a club-record 228 league goals (Ronaldo has totted up 158 since 2009). Manchester United's replacement for Beckham has accumulated goals mightily and relentlessly, in the shadow of a Barcelona side commonly described as the finest club team in history, and one constructed for the benefit of Ronaldo's only serious rival in world football: Lionel Messi.

Old pros often ask the question: if you placed Messi in this Real Madrid starting XI, would he be quite as good? And if Ronaldo was transferred to Barcelona, would he inflict even more havoc with his bustling counter-attacking style, impeccable professionalism and sadistic finishing?

All we know is that Ronaldo has done it the hard way. Conspicuous consumption era No 1 for president Florentino Perez also found room for Thomas Gravesen and Jonathan Woodgate; but there is no comparison between the job spec handed to Zidane and Figo and the one carried out so conscientiously by Ronaldo, who mocked Blatter's harmless 'commander' remark by saluting each time he scored against Sevilla.

History tells us Ronaldo likes to have something to kick against: brutish full-backs and Ruud van Nistelrooy in England, Messi and now Blatter in Spain. Bale, you feel, is another provocation he will welcome. A charitable team-mate might have allowed the young newbie from Wales to take the penalty for Real's third goal to complete his hat-trick. No way.

Sometimes the game throws up a great player who perpetually looks as if he is trying to prove a point. Ronaldo has that stamp. A point we all should concede is that he has carried this second Perez-funded Real side for much of his four years at the Bernabeu. Raul, who won six La Liga titles and three Champions League crowns, was the beneficiary of symphonic attacking football, orchestrated by Zidane.

In that period Real were set up as an entertainment troupe. The team embellished by Ronaldo are more modestly constructed. Luka Modric, Sami Khedira and Karim Benzema are classy types, but Madrid have struggled to cope with the Barcelona of Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and now Neymar. The pincer of Ronaldo and Bale will crush many opponents. But however well Bale adapts to the circus life of the Bernabeu, it remains hard to imagine him surpassing the stratospheric levels of Ronaldo, a marvel of self-improvement who taught himself first to dazzle and then to dominate.

His physical transformation from trickster to terror has been the most impressive personal leap of the last 10 years. His brilliance is attached these days to a bulldozer. Messi, however, is an older, more mature version of the boy-genius you see in his family videos. The essence of his game hasn't altered. At United, then in Spain, Ronaldo became the player Blatter tried to describe with his military analogy.

The best Real Madrid sides have been collections of world-beaters. This one rely on the consistent, pummelling power of a counter-striker who is adept with both feet, heads the ball like an English centre-half and decided, somewhere inside, that he will just have to go it alone if his team-mates cannot join him on his supremely high level. Can Bale? Could anyone? (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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