Bale strike silences critics in starting stakes

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Gareth BaleEmpicsGareth Bale celebrates his wonder goal.

For 70 minutes Jorge Valdano’s quotes seemed to have affected Gareth Bale. The Welshman was pretty much non-existent in what eventually became a comfortable afternoon for Real Madrid against Elche; missed chances, little threat and an apparent desire to be anywhere but on the pitch at the Bernabeu.

A minute later that was largely forgotten by a packed house in the Spanish capital. Bale had been a passenger, saved by the team, as Madrid’s former player, coach and director said in an interview on Spanish radio criticising the Welshman. But with big money comes big expectation and Bale, eventually, delivered.

Asier Illarramendi had given Los Blancos a a less-than-convincing half-time advantage with a deflected goal, his first for the club in La Liga, but the game was up-in-the-air with 20 minutes left. Cue Bale. The former Tottenham Hotspur man picked the ball up 30 yards from goal, looked up, and let rip with a thunderbolt of a strike that flew past a hapless Manu Herrera and into the back of the net via the underside of the crossbar.

It wasn’t Bale’s day; but then it was Bale’s day. Madrid were lacklustre against a mid-table Elche side and far from convincing, leaving the Welshman’s super strike the lasting memory from a less-than-impressive match that ended up with a rather flattering 3-0 scoreline in the hosts’ favour. Substitute Isco put the icing on the cake with a third nine minutes from time and Madrid went top of La Liga for a few hours at least.

The pressure had been on Bale from the start. Questioned by Valdano before the match, many Madridistas had also been wowed by the talents of Jese Rodriguez and thought the Las Palmas-born youngster should be in the starting XI alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in the three-pronged attack. Manager Carlo Ancelotti also said his decision would not be swayed by the amount of money his president Florentino Perez had splashed out last summer. The decision was all about the players on the pitch.

Ronaldo sat out the final match of his three-game suspension, apparently leaving Bale and Jese to battle it out for a starting role for the Champions League clash at Schalke next week and for the remainder of the season. With the Portuguese ready to return, the expectations were that the duo would be at the top of their game to impress against a side Ancelotti’s men should have dealt with comfortably -- on paper at least.

That wasn’t the reality though. Elche were right in the game until Bale’s stunner, which came from nowhere. Jese, who has been superb all season and especially since the turn of the year, had one of his quietest games since making the progression from Castilla to the first team while Bale also struggled throughout.

Elche caused Madrid problems when the sides met in the return fixture in September and felt hard done by when Cristiano Ronaldo’s late and controversial penalty won Ancelotti’s side all three points. Madrid were Ronaldo-less this time and although Illarramendi’s strike gave the hosts a first-half lead Elche, again, will have felt hard done by. Los Blancos bossed the first 10 minutes and chances came and went for Jese and Benzema but a 0-0 stalemate seemed the fairest scoreline at the break.

Ronaldo had not been missed in the last two matches as Madrid saw off Getafe 3-0 and Villarreal 4-2 respectively but he was missed this weekend. Not only the Ballon d’Or winner, but midfielder Luka Modric, too. Illarramendi produced one of the few impressive performances on a low-key day for the capital club, but the Croatian’s drive in midfield was missed. Modric has been one of Los Blancos’ biggest performers this season and it is at least better for him to miss this game than next week’s short trip to the Vicente Calderon to face Atletico in El Derbi.

Bale’s start to life in Madrid has been assessed in different ways; some focusing on the statistics and deeming it a success, others looking at the performances between the stats and saying something’s not quite right for a player affected by niggling injuries and a lack of a pre-season, but also by a big-money move to arguably the biggest club in the world. Some would say his start was summed up in Saturday’s clash: a wonder goal with not much else between.

Bale’s goal aside there were other positives for Madrid despite the overall lacklustre showing. Illarramendi looked as assured as he has done in Madrid’s midfield and the goal as an added bonus; Raphael Varane got another 90 minutes under his belt alongside Pepe in the heart of the Madrid defence, keeping a clean sheet; Isco also had reasons to be cheerful after a couple of months being largely frustrated on the bench. Starting as a substitute again, the former Malaga man scored one and came close to setting up another.

Madrid will face a much sterner test in Germany this week as they look to continue a route to a possible 10th European Cup and will have to show big improvements if they are to progress. Ancelotti still has a tough decision to make. Start with Bale or Jese? The Welshman’s goal may just have saved him.

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