After five years in Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow, it’s time the Gareth Bale era finally kicked off at Real Madrid

27 Aug

For five years Gareth Bale has stood in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid’s all-time record goal-scorer, picking up plenty of medals for his collection but more often than not struggling with injuries and difficulties in his adaptation to Spanish football, while his team-mate claimed the plaudits.

Ronaldo scored 451 goals for Real Madrid, but has now left, leaving Bale in the spotlight at the Bernabeu

For a player who was the standout star of his team and commanded a huge fee when he left Tottenham, the frustration of playing at best second-fiddle should not be overlooked. Add to that the doubts among some sections of the Madrid fanbase about his capacity to succeed there, and it is in many ways surprising that the attacker isn’t at a different club by now. Offers certainly weren’t short in supply.

After half a decade however, Ronaldo’s move to Juventus has finally opened the door of opportunity many felt Bale was destined to enter when he first moved to Spain in 2013. Tentatively, there are signs that the Welshman is ready to leave his true imprint on a new era for Los Blancos.

A prequel of the shift was offered in the 2017/18 Champions League final, Bale’s stunning bicycle kick casting a tame Ronaldo in the background for once. The Portuguese subsequently chose an inopportune moment to reveal uncertainty about his continuity at the Bernabeu following the final whistle in a desperate attempt to claw back some of the attention.

Bale didn’t even start that game – a sign of his diminishing importance among the Madrid ranks under Zinedine Zidane. Ronaldo’s exit to Turin, a change in coach and a lack of depth up front ensured a starting position would not be particularly difficult to come by this season however, and with three official games under his belt, the number 11’s list of contributions already bodes well.

The 2018 European Super Cup was not a happy one for Madrid but for Bale on an individual level, picking up an assist for Karim Benzema’s initial equalizer following a surging run and cross on the right wing was a step in the right direction. He soon built on that in Los Blancos’ league opener against Getafe, an excellent left-footed cross from the opposite flank this time causing David Soria to flap and leading to Dani Carvajal’s opener that broke the opposition resistance. A standing left-footed finish in the area in the second half followed, sealing the win and opening the 29-year-old’s goalscoring account for the 2017/18 La Liga season.

Gareth Bale scored for Real Madrid in their 4-1 win against Girona to make it two goals in two league games so far this season

Those were tasters, and against Girona on Sunday, Bale truly started to enjoy his newly minted role as Real Madrid’s danger man in chief. His decisiveness in the opposition area and consistent, driving runs in the second half will live long in the memory of poor Marc Muniesa in particular, the man left flailing uncontrollably in his failed efforts to stop a Bale whose confidence soared as the game progressed.

The match at Montilivi could have been very different for the Real Madrid star. In years gone by with Ronaldo around, it probably would have. In the first half Bale struggled to find his rhythm, switching from right flank to left, over and over in an attempt to come into contact with the ball and influence the match.

More often than not he wasn’t obliged. After receiving possession, the first thing the likes of Toni Kroos and Marcelo used to do was look for Ronaldo. In the initial period on Sunday it was instead Bale who went looking for them.

Real Madrid paid Tottenham £85m for Bale in 2013 and he has won the Champions League four times, a Spanish league title and the Copa del Rey in that time

After the break that changed entirely. Perhaps Julen Lopetegui instructed his team to give the ball to the number 11 more often, or perhaps the player himself simply decided to step things up a gear when he did receive possession. Either way, in the second period Bale was absolutely lethal.

The first sign of that came with only a minute played in the second period. In an effort to win back possession, makeshift left-back Muniesa stormed out of position but instead gave the ball away to Benzema. The Frenchman accurately weighted a pass through to Bale who was already deep in the space the defender had left behind, curling his subsequent shot slightly high.

A second moment of target practice followed a few moments later, with Bale again appearing behind Muniesa to control a high ball then shoot, this time hitting the target and drawing an excellent save from Yassine Bounou.

With just under an hour played, the tie delicately balanced 2-1 in Madrid’s favour and Girona encouraged by their home crowd to push for an equalizer, Bale finally punished them. The position on the pitch was the same – the space behind the opposition left-back – but this time the run was just slightly sharper. The forward burned Muniesa for pace, leaving him for dead and shrugging off a futile attempt to pull his white shirt, before bursting into the box unchallenged then sliding the ball beautifully into the net past Bono.

It was the goal that killed Girona’s spirit and ensured the night would turn into a Madrid route rather than a nail-biting finale. And it was vintage Bale – the kind we haven’t seen frequently enough at the Bernabeu.

Bale was lethal for Real Madrid against Girona, whose defence felt the full force of his talent

Smelling blood and with a newfound spring in his step, the Madrid man kept going, kept running tirelessly at Muniesa and anyone else who attempted to stop him. By the end of the night the Catalan defender had abandoned any attempt to get to the ball first and was resorting to bodychecks in an effort to block his opponent.

The forward had one more moment of influence left in him. With just over 10 minutes left to play Bale picked up the pace again, tormenting Muniesa with his quick shifting of the ball from foot to foot, storming into the area and picking out Benzema perfectly with a pass on the outside of his left boot for the fourth and final Madrid goal in the 4-1 route.

Lopetegui had seen enough. No doubt aware of the physical issues that have plagued him in recent years, the coach took his star off to standing applause from the Madrid away support with a goal, an assist, and an excellent, decisive second half performance under his belt. Is it a sign of a more influential Bale to come for Real this season? After losing 40 goals a season with the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid boss and support alike will hope so.

Lee Roden is writing for talkSPORT on all things La Liga this season. Follow him on Twitter here.