Real Madrid galactico Gareth Bale still remembers clearly waiting and waiting for the ball to come down, so he could head in the clinching goal in the 2014 Champions League final.
Bale’s side were facing Atletico Madrid in Lisbon, with the game well into extra-time after Blancos defender Sergio Ramos headed a 93rd minute equaliser to tie the showpiece at 1-1, just when Atletico had seemed set for victory over their city neighbours.
With both teams exhausted, penalties were looming when Madrid winger Angel Di Maria cut through the Atletico defence, and his shot hit goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and looped up in the air.
At the back post watching the ball fall out of the sky was Bale, who recalled the moment when speaking with the Irish Examiner at Madrid’s ‘media open day’ this week.
“It seemed like it was in slow motion,” Bale said. “When the ball went up in the air, it felt like I was hanging there waiting for two days. I just wanted to get a good contact on the ball and get the goal to give us the lead. It’s an amazing memory.”
Bale achieved his objective, the net bulged. Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo added further late goals as Madrid won 4-1 in the end.
The teams meet again tomorrow evening in this year’s Champions League decider in Milan. Bale would prefer less heart-stopping drama this time around, although the memory of what happened two years ago was useful for his side.
“I’d rather not be 1-0 down with one minute to go,” he joked. “But [the memory of 2014] definitely plays a part. The first thing you think about is your last final, and you know you can beat the opponent. We know it will be a completely different game, but we’re confident we can win.”
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Bale also scored the winner in the Copa del Rey final during his first year following his €101m world record signing from Spurs. But the 2014/15 campaign was less memorable for the Welsh man. Fans and pundits at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu often questioned his worth, and his own agent Jonathan Barnett suggested tension with fellow galactico Ronaldo. The current season has been a happier campaign for the now 26-year-old, who is more settled with his family in the Spanish capital, and has hit excellent form in recent months under new coach Zinedine Zidane.
“I feel more a part of it now,” Bale admits. “In the first year you don’t know a lot of people, you have to create relationships. Now I feel more settled, more integrated into the team, more involved. It will be an exciting game on Saturday, one I am looking forward to. That’s what I came here for, to be in Champions League finals, and to win them.”
Zidane has impressed since replacing Rafa Benitez last January, skilfully avoiding off-pitch controversies and overseeing progress to the final past Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City. Bale has a good relationship with his new boss, who [unlike Benitez] allows players the freedom to express themselves as they wished.
Bale explained: “We speak all the time about what we can improve. He’s definitely given the team more confidence to express yourself. When you’re given that freedom to go out and play your own game, it brings the best out of you, and that is what we’ve seen in the second half of the season. I feel we’re hitting our peak and playing very well.”
Madrid’s defensive record is impressive, and Bale said the entire team was working as a unit off the ball, as they had in beating City 1-0 on aggregate in the semi- finals.
“In the Champions League I don’t think we’ve conceded a goal at home all season,” he said. “We work together to defend and we attack together. Maybe we made Man City look dull and boring, we nullified their threats. We controlled the games very well.”
Atletico coach Diego Simeone has suggested that Zidane’s Madrid are a counter-attacking side, and his team could even have more of the ball this time.
“It depends how the game goes,” Bale said. “We’ve a few game plans we’re very good at. We can keep the ball, counter-attack, defend when we have to. The games against Atletico are always very physical. They’re very defensive and make it very difficult for us to break them down.”
A tight game is expected, both teams perhaps having to wait for their key moment to come - just like Bale did two years ago this week.
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