Saturday 24 February 2018

Madrid getting 'used to' role as kings of Europe

Real Madrid’s defender Sergio Ramos (R) holds up the trophy beside Real Madrid’s Brazilian defender Marcelo celebrating the team’s win on Plaza Cibeles in Madrid last night. Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Real Madrid’s defender Sergio Ramos (R) holds up the trophy beside Real Madrid’s Brazilian defender Marcelo celebrating the team’s win on Plaza Cibeles in Madrid last night. Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Jason Burt

You know that this Real Madrid side are enjoying an era of dominance to rank the club among the best in history when they describe winning a Champions League as something they are getting "used to".

When Gareth Bale makes that statement, it is given more depth, too, because it is said without arrogance.

Bale means it. Bale has won the Champions League three times in the four seasons since he joined Real, with the latest triumph the most convincing. With their 12th European Cup, the Spanish giants also became the first club to retain the trophy in its modern format.

"It's a little bit more relaxed as we get used to it," Bale said of the players' celebrations in his home-town city after their resounding victory over Juventus, a side who had conceded three goals in total in their 12 Champions League matches preceding the final.

Though the Italian club dominated the first-half, Real destroyed them with an astonishing display after the interval. It was the kind of loss that signals the end of something; perhaps of the formidable 'BBC' defence of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini - ahead of legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

What is so threatening for the rest of Europe is that Bale believes Real have yet to peak.

"We have won three Champions Leagues in four seasons so we have to be in that category," he said when asked whether this Real side already rank alongside the Milan of 1988-90, the last team to retain the European Cup, and the Liverpool side who won it three times between 1976 and 1981.

"All we can keep doing is keep working hard and hopefully there will be more to come," Bale added.

"I think we can get better. We are still quite young as a whole team and we have a great squad. We haven't just got a great 11, we have a great squad, so if any injuries come along there are other people who can do a job. We are strong at the moment. We are confident and the plan is to win more."

The big question is, of course, where does Bale fit into that plan? The 27-year-old has suffered this season with injury and made it only on to the bench for the final, joining the game in the 77th minute, when it was already won, and receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

Surgery

Before the final Bale conceded that having only just recovered from an ankle injury that required surgery last November - it sidelined him for three months before he suffered a setback after returning too quickly - he did not warrant a starting place ahead of Isco, who has been in outstanding form.

The way Isco has established himself and the emergence of Marco Asensio - who scored Real's fourth goal in the final as another substitute - plus the pursuit of Monaco's Kylian Mbappe, has sparked the sensitive debate as to whether it might be time for Bale to return to the Premier League.

Bale is acutely aware of it and has lived with it - and the question of whether or not he will eventually succeed the phenomenon of Cristiano Ronaldo - since he signed.

He is adamant, publicly at least, that he is going to stay. Not least because he agreed a new deal only last summer.

"I have signed a long-term contract at Madrid," he said. "My family is happy and I am happy so, yeah, we will continue what we are doing."

There will be strong interest in England at the slightest suggestion that might change and it surely would if Real were to sign the 18-year-old Mbappe, even though they have had a £103 million offer rebuffed.

There is already an understanding that Manchester United would want to be involved in any discussion over Bale's future should the possibility arise of him leaving, although he insisted: "As I have said, I am happy here at Madrid.

"We are winning trophies. This club is the biggest in Champions League history and now we have even more. It's great to be a part of and we want to make more.

"(Winning in Cardiff) was a special occasion for me. It was an incredible feeling to lift the trophy here."

It almost felt written. As did the fact that Ronaldo would score. He did so twice, sweeping the ball past Buffon for the opening goal, then superbly clipping it beyond the goalkeeper for Real's third to take him to 600 career goals. In between there was one of the best goals in a European final, an over-the-shoulder volley from Mario Mandzukic to draw Juventus level, and a heavily deflected drive from distance from Casemiro to restore Real's lead.

It was inevitably Ronaldo's night, and surely he is on his way to a fifth Ballon d'Or, taking him alongside Lionel Messi, but it was also Bale's.

A special night - but something he is getting used to. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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