New boy Bale has bitter sweet introduction to the Real Madrid goldfish bowl
A whole new generation of British La Liga fans tuned into Sky Sports on Saturday evening to watch Gareth Bale make his Real Madrid debut against Villarreal. Not since David Beckham’s mega-move to the Santiago Bernabeu 10 years ago have Premier League fans watched with such anticipation.
There have been other recent British exports to Los Blancos of course. Michael Owen scored 18 goals in 41 games for the club during the 2004/05 season, while Jonathan Woodgate endured an injury-plagued three year spell at the club, playing just nine games before returning to the Premier League to sign for Middlesbrough.
Yet Gareth Bale is different, not least because his £86 million move from Tottenham Hotspur was the most expensive in football history. While most acknowledged David Beckham had limitations when he moved to Spain and Owen and Southgate were prone to injury, Gareth Bale is a player at the very top of his game, with the potential to get even better.
On Saturday evening at El Madrigal, Bale’s introduction to Spanish football was satisfying, without being spectacular. Given just over an hour of play by boss Carlo Ancelotti, the Welsh international played a peripheral role for the first 30 minutes of the game, but grew in confidence after getting on the end of a Dani Carvajal cross in the 38th minute to level the scores with his first goal in Spanish football.
The biggest surprise for many will have been the ferocious work rate Villarreal exhibited until Bale dampened their enthusiasm with his debut strike minutes before the break. The Yellow Submarine may have a squad that was assembled at a fraction of the cost it took to prise Bale away from White Hart Lane – there was a €380 million difference in the starting XI, however, they ran Real ragged for long spells of the game and could, quite feasibly, have been three or four goals up before they were pegged back by the Welshman.
Ancelotti chose to leave German midfielder Sami Khedira on the bench, instead opting to use Luka Modric and their €32.2 million new boy Asier Illarramendi just in front of the defence in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. It was a decision that back-fired for the Italian and huge swathes of space opened up which were exploited by the home side.
The fact that the visitors were still in the game when Bale struck the equaliser was down to goalkeeper Diego Lopez, who played 171 games for Villarreal before joining Sevilla and then Madrid last season. The busy Jonathan Pereira was denied twice by Lopez, who is currently keeping Iker Casillas out of the side, before Cani finally broke the deadlock after latching onto a loose ball in the penalty area.
With many expecting Real to steamroll the newly-promoted Villarreal, full-time La Liga watchers will have been less surprised. Marcelino’s side went into the game with maximum points from three games, one of just four teams to do so, and have managed to build on the form that saw them bounce back into the Spanish top flight at the first time of asking.
For Ancelotti’s men, things had not been so spectacular, despite Real being one of the other teams to go into the fourth round of matches with three wins from three (the other two are Atletico Madrid and, unsurprisingly, champions Barcelona). Their opening game against Real Betis was a tight affair, with the impressive Isco finally getting the decisive goal four minutes from time to earn a 2-1 triumph. Yet the Spanish capital’s press were less than enamoured with the performance, and even less-so when they struggled to dispatch a poor Granada side at Los Carmenes in week two.
As it has proved, former Malaga midfielder Isco has been the difference so far this season, scoring three goals in as many games before Saturday’s encounter at El Madrigal. The 21-year-old has been in sublime form, showing why Manchester City were so put out when he chose to move to the Bernabeu instead of linking up with his former Malaga boss, Manuel Pellegrini at Eastlands.
Despite his good form, Isco was rather more low key against Villarreal on Saturday however, where Madrid were let down by some shoddy defending and poor selections by Ancelotti. By the time Khedira came on to replace the largely ineffectual Illarramendi with 30 minutes to go, the home side had already realised they could get something from the game. Despite Cristiano Ronaldo getting his obligatory goal to put Madrid 2-1 up, there was something inevitable about Giovani Dos Santos’ equaliser just five minutes later.
For Gareth Bale, his evening came to an end when he was replaced by Angel di Maria 16 minutes into the second half. Despite netting his first goal for the club, it was clear that the Welshman is some way off full match fitness, which is understandable considering the unsettled summer he has just endured before finally clinching his dream move to the Bernabeu.
The goal will undoubtedly ease the pressure Bale is under as football’s most expensive player in history, however the real test is still to come. In a league dominated by the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid, every dropped point is analysed and reanalysed by the country’s overbearing press. If Gareth Bale thought the Premier League was goldfish bowl, he hasn’t see anything yet.