They would not have allowed a goal like it down at Whitchurch High School. Back when Gareth Bale was still just another gawky teen playing soccer against his classmates in Cardiff, Wales, his phys ed teachers banned him from kicking the ball with his favoured left foot. They had to do something to give the other kids a chance.
How many professional defenders must have wished for similar rules of engagement over the past decade or so? Even at the highest level of European competition, there are still times when Bale’s left can seem almost unfair: a weapon of such preposterous potency as to make all resistance seem futile.
And so, on Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund chose not to offer any. Under new manager Peter Bosz, BVB have eschewed defending almost completely – preferring to keep opponents on the back foot with a relentless attacking approach. Domestically, that has been a roaring success. Six games into a fresh Bundesliga campaign, they already sit three points clear at the top of the table with a goal difference of plus-18.
To attempt a similar approach against the reigning champions of Europe, though, was always going to be a gamble. Real Madrid, it is true, had stumbled out of the gates this season, losing at home to Real Betis and falling seven points behind Barcelona in La Liga. But if anyone at the Westfalenstadion was bold enough to ask if this team was losing its edge, then it took just 18 minutes for Bale to provide an answer.
Dani Carvajal’s cross from the right flank was measured just right to meet Bale’s run down the far channel, but the Welshman’s finish was outrageous all the same – a first-time volley placed with precision across goal and into the top corner. Such a strike would have been impressive enough from a standing start, let alone from a player running in to exploit the space behind Dortmund’s full-back.
Bale has been a target for criticism during Madrid’s slow start this season. In a sense, that is nothing new. The Welshman has had a section of the media against him from day one in Spain, his €100-million transfer fee deemed too high for a player who, after all, was no Cristiano Ronaldo. Never mind the fact that Bale would finish his first season at the club by scoring in triumphant Champions League and Copa del Rey finals.
It does feel as though there has been a further shift against him over the last nine months, however. Dermot Corrigan of ESPN noted recently how even those journalists who had previously defended Bale have begun to distance themselves, criticising his enduring failure to master the Spanish language and suggesting that Madrid might finally be prepared to sell.
In truth, such attacks might have less to do with Bale’s form than the rise of alternative talents around him. Niggling injuries have been a consistent and frustrating feature of his time in Spain, but last year, for the first time, Madrid seemed to do better when he was absent – Isco’s emergence in the No.10 role prompting Zinedine Zidane to change the team’s shape and helping to spur a scintillating end to the season.
It was that shift, indeed, which led Manchester United to believe that Bale might be lured away from the Bernabéu in the summer. Such hopes were quickly shut down. “The club wants him and he wants the club,” said José Mourinho at the end of August’s European Super Cup. It was the latter part of that equation, though, that seemed to have been most decisive.
So it always has been. Right back when he first joined Madrid in 2013, Bale insisted that this was the one and only team for which he could have left Tottenham without second-guessing himself. He wanted to play for the biggest club in the world, and help them to win trophies. Three Champions League winners’ medals later, you could hardly fault that judgement.
Who says that three is enough? Not Bale, who followed up that spectacular opener on Tuesday by teeing up Madrid’s second with a low cross for Ronaldo to sweep home.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
The Portuguese forward would grab another goal before the end, as Madrid ran out 3-1 winners – notching their first-ever away victory over Dortmund at the seventh attempt. It was Bale, though, who had been the star of the show. It was his pace and direct running that allowed the visitors to fully exploit their hosts’ reckless high defensive line. And it was his beautifully-struck opener that set the tone.
In April of this year, Bale told one interviewer that he believed he was still developing as a footballer – still working to refine his touch and close control. Perhaps he was also still honing that left foot of his. After all, we know that he didn’t learn to finish like that back at school.