Debut goal fails to Bale out Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo was one of the first out of El Madrigal on Saturday night, walking down the corridors of the little stadium and on to the coach parked in the narrow street outside around midnight. He was wearing the famous person's expression of determined non-engagement until he recognised a familiar face from the Manchester football reporting fraternity waiting on the other side of the rope.
"How are you, mate?" said Ronaldo, wandering over to shake hands. And then, as he turned away he shouted over his shoulder, "Don't worry! Bale is coming!", and winked extravagantly as befits a man who has 203 goals in 203 games for Real Madrid and has just signed a new five-year contract worth £76m. With his sidekick Pepe trailing eagerly after him, he was gone.
Gareth Bale was indeed soon out but he was wearing that fearful expression and, having just scored on his Madrid debut in a 2-2 draw with Villarreal, could not even muster a word to the lines of cameras and reporters. There seemed some confusion as to who had made that decision – Bale or the club – but the Real attitude was spelt out by one of their many anxious-looking minions. "Look, the problem is we didn't win," he said.
In a two-horse race, that is the issue facing Madrid, who are now fourth after four games. They have only dropped two points but when you have a starting XI that, on Saturday, cost £324m and you are up against a newly promoted side there can be no excuses. Especially when Barcelona – four wins out of four so far – are capable of knocking over opponents as remorselessly as they have done in this golden era of theirs.
What Bale learnt on Saturday night was that, although the big two in Spain have strangled the life out of the competition from a financial point of view, there are pockets of resistance. Villarreal were magnificent and, were it not for the Real goalkeeper Diego Lopez, might have won, although even he might have done better with Giovani dos Santos's goal, the second for the home side. Bale scored the equaliser and Ronaldo (pictured) the second after the break. Ruben Cani opened the scoring.
As for Bale's first few days at Madrid, explaining that fell to Paul Clement, the former PE teacher who became Carlo Ancelotti's assistant at Chelsea and moved with him to Paris Saint-Germain, where he helped David Beckhamto integrate, then Real.
"It's a similar scenario," Clement said. "I had a really good relationship with David, mostly because we were two Englishmen in Paris, and he could always lean on me if he needed to. He did, at times, and I think having someone else around who spoke the same language helped him settle in France.
"Gareth and I can develop the same kind of professional relationship here and help each other. I know how Carlo works, having been alongside him for a while now, and if I can pass on anything to Gareth to make him feel more at home then great."
On Saturday night, Bale started on the right but switched with Ronaldo at the mid-point of the first half and it was coming from that flank that he scored his goal. it was not one of the beautiful goals he has been scoring in the last three seasons, but it gave him a solid platform upon which to build. He was substituted before the hour.
He will need that stability in the challenges that lie ahead. The cycle of games resumes with Galatasaray in the Champions League in Istanbul tomorrow and then, potentially, Bale's Bernabeu debut against Getafe on Sunday.
Clement said: "He's got a lot of support. This is a big club, a club who have become used to foreign coaches and foreign players for many, many years. So everything's in place to give them that support and make that transition very easy."
It seems that the question for Madrid is how quickly they can get Bale back to his potent best without affecting the momentum that the team have to build in the league if they are to keep pace with Barcelona.