100 million reasons the pressure is on at Real Madrid for Gareth Bale

Not for the first time in his almost two seasons at Real Madrid, Gareth Bale goes into tonight’s Champions League semi-final second leg with debate raging over his talents.

100 million reasons the pressure is on at Real Madrid for Gareth Bale

Bale’s performance in Real Madrid’s 2-1 defeat in last week’s first leg at Juventus did not impress many pundits.

Media around the world ran the statistic that the €100m attacker had actually touched the ball less times (27) than his goalkeeper Iker Casillas (44) over the 90 minutes in Turin.

Spanish sports daily Marca headlined a piece on Bale’s performance ‘The Invisible Man’, saying he had done nothing all night.

“The reality is that Bale did not bring anything in either defence or attack,” Marca wrote. “Not one shot at goal, not one time did he win back possession. He did not even get caught offside.

“His stats sheet from the game was full of zeros.”

Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane made a similar argument during ITV’s coverage of the game.

“It’s very difficult to win a big game like this when you’re only playing with 10 men,” Keane said. “Gareth Bale gave them absolutely nothing.”

While much of this criticism was factually correct, it was also generally unfair. In his first start back after injury, and fielded in an unfamiliar position as a central striker, Bale did not have a good night at the Juventus Stadium. But neither did many of his team-mates.

Sergio Ramos had a shocker in an unfamiliar midfield position. Centre-back Raphael Varane was given the run-around by Juve’s goalscorers Alvaro Morata and Carlos Tevez. Cristiano Ronaldo was also generally bypassed by the game — his close range headed goal aside. Madrid’s talisman also had less touches than Casillas over the 90 minutes — but that went unmentioned amid the analysis.

This was not the first time that Bale had been scapegoated after a poor Madrid performance. His perceived “selfishness” in front of goal was front page news in the Spanish sports press through February and March, especially after Ronaldo threw his arms up in anguish after not being handed easy tap-in goals against Espanyol and Real Sociedad.

Blancos fans and pundits followed the superstar’s lead, and the Welshman was whistled by the Bernabeu, and slated to such an extent by local reporters that club president Florentino Perez called a press conference to defend “his” big money signing.

Many reacted to this by seeing Bale as now ‘untouchable’ due to protection from on high.

The Wales international claims not to listen to outside critics, or to read the local press. However an unusually showy goal celebration against Levante in mid-March — with hands pointedly clamped over his ears, then an angry kick at the corner flag — suggested he has picked up at least some Spanish language skills since his arrival in Madrid.

Bale began last Saturday’s crunch La Liga game against Valencia eager to make a similar point. Returned to his usual position on the right of a three man attack, he was immediately involved and was by far his team’s best player during the first half — hitting the crossbar with a 25 yard free-kick and winning a penalty, which Ronaldo subsequently missed.

Bale did not score, but did provide the assist for Isco’s equaliser, as Madrid came back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. Although the result means Barcelona are all-but assured of the La Liga title, a fighting team performance was praised by the Bernabeu commentariat. However Bale got just one ‘ace’ out of three in AS’s match ratings. Ronaldo — despite his penalty miss and much less prominent display — was given two.

Charging into the debate on Sunday came Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett, who told the Telegraph that the real problem was Madrid’s other players would not pass his client the ball.

“People don’t know what they’re talking about when they criticise Gareth,” Barnett said. “Real have to work with Gareth and pass the ball to him more. Give him more of the ball and let him show everybody what he’s good at. He’s going to be the best player at Real Madrid when his team-mates work with him and help him. Hopefully Real will come to terms with this.”

Barnett was obviously protecting his client, but it is true that the former Tottenham winger’s overall numbers have dipped recently. Bale scored 21 goals and made 16 assists in La Liga and Champions League action last season, despite his late start and injury issues. He has 15 goals and 10 assists so far this year, even with significantly more playing time.

These are not bad numbers, but then the demands on a galactico at the world’s richest and most successful club are sky high. Bale’s current season is also missing the match- winning moments on huge occasions as he provided last year — including clinching goals in both finals as Madrid won the Copa del Rey and Champions League.

At yesterday’s pre-game news conference, Ancelotti suggested he hoped Bale was keeping something similar in his locker for tonight’s game.

“Bale’s agent has never come to see any of our training sessions, does not know our atmosphere,” the Italian coach said. “Bale is delighted to be here, he has never had a problem with a team-mate, and no team-mate has ever had a problem with Bale. He is having a good season. Last year he scored goals in important moments, in the finals he played. It could be that, with good luck, he will have the same chance again this year to do the same.”

Given how things usually work at the Bernabeu, if Bale scores tonight and Madrid progress to the final in Berlin, then all will be forgiven — for the moment at least. But if not then Barnett and Florentino might be talking again soon, with a summer transfer looking increasingly possible.

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