Bernabeu gives Bale OK

Posted by Rob Train


With Cristiano Ronaldo confined to the stands it fell to Gareth Bale to bring the Bernabeu to its feet on Saturday. The Welsh forward scored three goals in Real Madrid's 4-0 win over Valladolid and provided a pinpoint cross for Karim Benzema to head in the side's second goal in what was a comfortable victory on a frigid night in the Spanish capital.

Carlo Ancelotti fielded the 12th different midfield of his tenure as he searches for his preferred 11 in the long-term absence of Sami Khedira. Angel di Maria was the logical choice to deputize for the recuperating Ronaldo on the left and Luka Modric was reinstated alongside Xabi Alonso at the base of midfield. The inclusion of the Croatian playmaker benefitted Isco, who was left a little isolated during Real's previous league encounter and unable to impose himself on the game. With Modric stroking the ball around from the back and Alonso marshalling the midfield, Isco saw a good deal of the ball and used it well in a stand-out performance during which none of Real's players did their claims to a first-team spot any harm at all. Clearly, Ronaldo is the first name on any Real team sheet, but Ancelotti's line-up against Juan Ignacio Martinez's side was easily too much for the visitor to handle.

- Gareth Bale hat trick inspires Real

Di Maria signalled Real's intent early, producing a thunderous strike from distance that rattled Diego Marino's crossbar with the keeper well beaten. The Argentinean was perhaps a little bit too eager to impress and should have squared a few minutes later with three Real players moving into the box, but elected to have a pop instead from too acute an angle. Still, he warmed Marino's hands often enough during the game to mitigate pulling the trigger whenever the chance presented itself.

Another player with a point to prove, Sergio Ramos, was up for every corner and headed high early on from an Alonso delivery. He found himself on the end of a slick move initiated by the Basque's deft touch a few minutes later but again failed to trouble Marino.

The home side were in complete control of the opening half hour, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo pushing upfield to create a 2-4-4 when Real were in possession. And they were for much of the half, with Valladolid very much pinned into their own.

The matter of the opening goal became when, not if, as Real's staggering shots total for the season was added to with gusto (another 26 from this match). Going into the game the home side had mustered exactly double the number of goal attempts of the visitor, who lacked the driving force of their midfield general Patrick Ebert. Valladolid, though, did not lack ambition and certainly didn't park the team bus as might have been expected. A legacy of Miroslav Djukic's tenure, Martinez's team likes to keep the ball on the deck and play it out from the back. Fausto Rossi and Zakara Bergdich launched some dangerous counterattacks but Valladolid lacked a cutting edge in front of goal on a very quiet night for Real stopper Diego Lopez.

When the opening goal arrived it was a little harsh on the visitor, which had held out valiantly until that stage. Di Maria again chanced his arm from the left channel and Marino parried the stinging drive as best as he could, but straight onto the head of Bale, who nodded into an empty net.

Benzema doubled Real's advantage almost immediately and the only question that then remained was how many Valladolid would ship. Martinez's side failed to test Lopez at all in the first half and despite the best efforts of Bergdich, who drew a save early in the second, and Manucho, who replaced the ineffectual Javi Guerra in the second period, Valladolid never genuinely threatened to ruin a million Quinigols (the results predictor coupon on which Real 3-plus, whoever 0, is a weekly punt).

Benzema found the back of the net after the restart through excellent work from Carvajal, but was adjudged offside. The young right-back repeated his trick on Real's next forward foray and fed the France forward again, but Benzema was unable to pull the ball from under his feet and watched it bobble harmlessly past the post.

Little matter. Bale was on hand to take advantage when Carlos Pena pushed a Marcelo cross into his path, slotting home with his right foot from inside the area.

With the points safe, Ancelotti withdrew Di Maria and Benzema to give canteranos Jese and Alvaro Morata a trot out, but the night was destined to belong to the 90-million- to 100-million-euro-man from Cardiff. With the game winding down, Real playing keep ball and Valladolid looking to the fourth official to announce how long they had to endure, Marcelo burst down the left and looked set to have a go himself before handing Bale his hat trick on a silver plate. The Welshman raced to embrace the Brazilian, who accepted the gratitude with a broad grin of his own.

Meanwhile, the Bernabeu rose to laud the summer signing, who as well as becoming the first British player to net a Liga hat trick since Gary Lineker in 1987 also did something even rarer in these rarefied footballing times; he allowed the home support to forget about Ronaldo for 90 minutes.

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