It was the sort of burst of inspiration that can cut open the tightest of games. When Gareth Bale accelerated inside Sead Kolasinac, Schalke were exposed. He fed Cristiano Ronaldo, though it was when the ball eventually fell for Karim Benzema that Real Madrid took the lead in their Champions League last 16 tie.
Of course, this wasn’t the tightest of games.
Due to the combination of Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema’s brilliance, and Schalke’s inability to form a plan to counter it, El Real enter this week’s return fixture with a 6-1 lead. Yet there was nothing routine about the demolition of the Royal Blues in Gelsenkirchen that night.
It felt like some sort of epochal moment, where everything clicked into place. Carlo Ancelotti’s attacking triumvirate always looked irresistible on paper, but now it was proving so in actuality on Europe’s biggest stage. The first stage of Bale’s integration at the Bernabeu had been achieved.
This was always going to be the challenging part of his adaptation; the move from Tottenham’s individual saviour (and it has been painfully apparent in this campaign that Bale papered over myriad cracks at White Hart Lane) to co-collaborator in a galaxy of stars.
The cumulative total of El BBC (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano), as Marca would have it (in Spanish here), stands at 45 in La Liga, and at an astonishing 69 in all competitions combined. Bale’s personal contribution is 10 goals and 11 assists in 17 La Liga starts, with a further four in four (one assist) in the Champions League.
It’s a great start, and made all the more remarkable given not just the change in football, lifestyle and culture that Bale has experienced, but the below-par physical condition in which he arrived.
Though Bale scored in his first start—the 2-2 draw with Villarreal at El Madrigal in mid-September—there was a sense that he was some distance from his best. He was largely peripheral to a frenetic match. His next La Liga start was not until the end of October, in the defeat to Barcelona in El Clasico at the Camp Nou.
If it seemed as if there was some sort of ideological imperative to include him for arguably the biggest occasion in club football, it was misplaced. The match again passed him by, and he was criticised in Britain and Spain alike, but his determination has been apparent since.
On the completion of his £85.3 million move to Los Merengues, the BBC’s Gary Lineker (a fellow England-to-Spain export) exhorted Bale to “throw his heart and soul into the move.”
It has always appeared that the Welshman has been ready to do that, from the moment when he gamely attempted a few words of Spanish at his Bernabeu presentation. That willingness has stood him in good stead.
With El Clasico II set for Sunday, El Real are far stronger than they were in autumn—as is Bale himself. If there could be one criticism of Bale so far (and given the rapidity of his adaptation, it would be harsh), it could be that he hasn’t really caught fire in a potentially season-defining game just yet.
It is all set up for Bale to do just that on Sunday. Clearly Barcelona are not Schalke, but even if they sit a little deeper under Tata Martino, they can still be susceptible to lightning counter-attacks, as was evidenced in last month’s defeat at Real Sociedad. Jagoba Arrasate’s side had just 35 percent of possession but could easily have won by more than the 3-1 scoreline that they posted.
Antoine Griezmann, in particular, made merry for La Real at the Anoeta that night, and with all due respect to the newly capped France winger (who has 15 La Liga goals this season), Bale is in a different stratosphere.
With Barcelona four points behind in the title race, they must come to the capital to attack. It is an inviting scenario for Bale to confirm his excellent first impressions with a keynote display.