Bale and Benitez had both been heavily criticised following the previous weekend’s scoreless La Liga draw at Sporting Gijon, with much focus on the new coach having fielded the Welshman in a roving central attacking role.
Benitez defended his decision to give Bale “more freedom” than his attacking colleagues, saying before the opener that the former Spurs man “has characteristics the others don’t have.”
The Welsh star admitted pre-season his preference to play centrally, believing it to be his best position. However, the Madrid-based sports media was not so impressed. AS spoke after the Sporting game of ‘Benitez’s labyrinth’, arguing that fielding Bale as a central playmaker was “causing confusion” for everyone in the Madrid attack.
Players were also wondering what was going on — surprisingly strong leaks had James Rodriguez “upset” at being only a substitute at El Moliñon, while even more worryingly Marca claimed that Ronaldo was “not comfortable” in Benitez’s system.
This decision to give Bale such a role was widely assumed to be the idea of club president Florentino Perez, who wants ‘his’ world record signing promoted. Publicity shots for Madrid’s new third kit released last week showing Bale in a more prominent position than Ronaldo also fed this narrative.
The feeling that Bale is being backed from on high was further strengthened later in the week — with Real Madrid TV showing his first ever Spanish language TV interview. The clearly prepared answers stressed the “unity” of the dressing-room, and his positive meetings with fans on the streets of the Spanish capital. ‘Bale wants to be liked,’ said Saturday morning’s front cover of AS.
So it was excellent timing for all concerned when Bale opened the scoring almost immediately against Betis on Saturday evening — heading home after 94 seconds. He then continued to be very active in the play, roving in his new central role and getting involved as much as possible.
Just after half-time he provided the right wing cross from which Karim Benzema made it 3-0. With time almost up came his best moment, receiving the ball 40 yards from goal, turning and carrying it forward, before swerving a low rocket to the net. Those looking for confirmation that Bale had found his best position could feel vindicated.
Bale was not the only galactico to prove a point on Saturday however — or even the game’s best player. James provided the assist for Bale’s opener with a pinpoint cross, then made it 2-0 with a whipped free kick from an almost impossible angle, and got the fourth with an athletic bicycle kick.
The Colombian, 24, also played more passes and made more crosses than any other player, in a man of the match performance.
He - not Bale – was deservedly featured on Sunday’s covers of both AS and Marca.
Missing from all this was Ronaldo, who had an especially frustrating evening — fluffing a number of relatively simple chances, having a few extravagant penalty claims turned down, and also being seen grimacing and holding his knee during the second half.
Heavy Madrid wins usually feature at least one goal from the Portuguese, but even against Betis’ shambolic defending he was scoreless.
He has taken 16 shots over Madrid’s first two La Liga games, without finding the net. Benitez and James both stressed after the game that Ronaldo would soon be among the goals.
But if the hope for this season’s Madrid is to be less reliant on just one player, then Saturday gave plenty of food for thought.