Soccer: Bale steps into the void

By Ian Hawkey

Welshman's hat-trick draws praise and tentative comparison to injured Ronaldo.

Real Madrid's Gareth Bale has been hailed as the 'Prince of Goals' by the Spanish media. Photo / AP
Real Madrid's Gareth Bale has been hailed as the 'Prince of Goals' by the Spanish media. Photo / AP

Gareth Bale woke up yesterday morning at his home in the western suburbs of Madrid with his first yellow Liga matchball safely housed among his more precious souvenirs.

All his colleagues from the Real Madrid team who defeated Valladolid 4-0 had signed it, with various individual congratulations for his three goals, and a thank you from Karim Benzema for the Bale cross that set up Madrid's second.

Bale will never have felt more strongly that he belongs at Madrid. But had he scanned the local media, over his breakfast, he would have noticed some commentators still trying to place him, categorise what type of player he really is, what influences he draws on.

His hat-trick defined him as a "New Gary Lineker" statistically - Lineker, once of Barcelona, is the only other Briton, post-war, to have struck three goals in a Spanish league fixture - but also, apparently, stylistically.

"His goal sense is not just those long shots that shine in highlights packages," said Alfredo Relano, senior columnist of the sports tabloid As, "it extends to his being in the right place to pick up a poor clearance, or to receive a pass, a bit like Lineker."

Elsewhere, he was being likened, as a Welsh icon, to Tom Jones, in an excitable piece in the national daily, ABC, who barely stopped short of a belting rendition of Delilah. "He's from Wales," ABC noted, "from the mines, where almost from birth, everybody is smeared in coal. They are born strong. Just look at Tom Jones, with his golden voice." As's front page anointed Bale 'The Prince of Wales'.

Its rival Marca, went cleverer, 'El Principe de Goles', punning on the resemblance, in Spanish, between the words for Wales and for goals. 'Gales' is the country, 'Goles' are what Bale now has nine of, from his first three, injury-interrupted, months as a Madrid player.

A little cheekily, the Catalan - pro-Barcelona - newspaper, El Periodico, headlined its report: 'Bale dresses up as Ronaldo'. It was an obvious point, but, around Madrid, Bale-Ronaldo comparisons tend to be carefully avoided. Yes, Bale had entered Ronaldo territory - his is the first Madrid hat-trick by any player other than the Portuguese for more than two years; between Gonzalo Higuain's treble against Real Betis in mid-October 2011 and Bale's, Ronaldo has struck 13 - but he had not stepped into Ronaldo's shoes. Rather, he had stepped into his slipstream.

The pro-Madrid media are on a fierce drive to emphasise that Ronaldo, who they have been pushing for the 2013 Ballon d'Or award, is currently peerless, above comparison with Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery or anybody else.

Ronaldo was absent on Saturday while he recovers from a minor strain. So, as for the victory against Galatasaray in the Champions League four nights earlier, Madrid and La Liga's top goalscorer watched from a VIP box in the corner of stadium.

From there, Ronaldo has seen Bale take up some of the positions that would normally be his. Indeed, after four minutes against Galatasaray, Ronaldo watched Bale released by just the kind of through-ball Madrid's midfield suppliers work at perfecting, for him to run on to and from which he has amassed a large proportion of his 226 Real goals. This one, from Isco, gave Bale a fine opportunity. He missed.

Bale's next 176 minutes in a Ronaldo-less Madrid turned out a good deal better. A goal direct from a free kick, from the range Ronaldo might very well have imposed his own right to take, established the lead for 10-man Madrid against Galatasaray. The three goals against Valladolid ticked each box of the "perfect" hat-trick: a header, a right-footed finish, a goal with his left. His cross for Benzema's goal forms part of a valuable pattern, for which the France striker will be grateful.

With Ronaldo's return to fitness, a still more potent Madrid front-line must be anticipated. Bale's challenge then may be to maintain the liberated flair of Sunday. His coach, Carlo Ancelotti, found himself genuinely considering whether this might have been his team's "most complete" performance of the season.

He was careful not to say it was, on a night when Ronaldo was only a spectator, and the calibre of opposition limited. Ancelotti did make one declaration. "Gareth Bale's period of adaptation is over," he said.

Sunday's hat-trick was a watershed. He should anticipate more signed matchballs.

- Daily Telegraph UK

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 21 Dec 2014 12:51:26 Processing Time: 269ms