It’s that moment. Through on the goalkeeper; one on one. Everything else is still and a second seems to take a minute to runs its brief course. The delicious agony of the instant, standing on the precipice of a moment that will result in acclaim or opprobrium fills pumps the adrenalin up to maximum levels. No time for breath. No time for consideration. Action is required. Anticipate the relief rapidly turning into adulation. Fear the agony and the anger chasing it. There’s pressure. There’s real pressure. Then again, there’s Real pressure.
For Gareth Bale last evening in the Vicente Calderon the moment came early. Barely three minutes had elapsed in the Champions League quarter-final between Atletico Madrid and their aristocratic neighbours from up the road at the Bernabeu when the Welshman, clad in the pristine white of Los Blancos found himself in the clear and facing the Atletico ‘keeper. This was the seventh meeting of the season between his Real Madrid team and their downtown, downmarket city rivals – and Carlo Ancelotti’s ‘Decima’ winners were yet to register a victory.
What went through Bale’s mind in that unconsciously, wildly conscious moment? Senses heightened, instincts screaming in klaxon-like, red alert tones. A chance to put your team ahead and break the dam at a stadium where of late Real Madrid had found scoring as difficult as finding a Bernabeu fan who prefers Bale to Ronaldo.Was the pressure of being the world’s costliest player – despite Real’s attempts to dress the fee in different clothes to preserve Cristiano Ronaldo’s fragile ego and self-esteem – a weighty problem or a confidence boost?
Did the absence of his Portuguese team-mate from his vision take away a passing option that the Real Madrid fans would have screamed at him to take? Was he recalling the day when he didn’t pass to Ronaldo but instead took on the shot when clean through against Espanyol. He scuffed that opportunity wide and the only person apparently angrier with Bale than the fans was Ronaldo himself, sulking in a self-indulgent petulance that only encouraged the fans to barrack the Welshman, rather than console his team-mate. Knowing the value of team play Ronaldo, faced with the same position, would surely have passed. Well, perhaps not.
Did Bale think of the series of fans’ polls organised by Madrid newspapers with pages of copy to fill with the latest hot news from the Bernabeu? Polls that suggested the fans would prefer almost anyone to play instead of Bale? Isco? You bet! Jese? Certainly! Perhaps even Sir Tom Jones would have beaten his compatriot in popularity. Sir Tom would perhaps consider that as ‘not unusual’ but again perhaps replacing Bale with another Welshman is stretching the point a little too far.
What of the ‘keeper? Did Bale contemplate how the man between the sticks would react? This was Jan Oblak. The Slovenian had been purchased from Benfica in the summer, for a fee of around £12.6million to replace Thibaut Courtois. It would have been small change for Real Madrid, but represented a huge layout for Atletico, and yet he had been unable to claim the number one spot from Miguel Angel Moya. That was until the previous round in this competition when Moya, suffering a hamstring injury, had to be replaced.
Oblak went on to preserve a clean sheet up to the ninety minutes, and then beyond into extra-time, before then becaming the penalty shoot-out hero as his saves propelled Los Colchoneros into the quarter-finals and the match up with their cross city neighbours. Oblak will have been keen to cement his place with a sound display. Save this, and he could go on to be a star performer in the match for Atletico. Did this go through Bale’s mind?
Whether all, or none, of the above occupied the attentions of the Welshman for an instant is solely a matter for conjecture. As he ran forward, hair slicked back and calmly maintained by the Alice Band English footballers turning out for Los Blancos seem to consider obligatory when they pull on the white shirt – witness Beckham and Woodgate. Michael Owen being the case that proves the rule, however – his eyes were fixed on the goal. Clipping the ball with his green booted left foot, he made a crisp connection, placing the ball towards the far left hand side of the inviting net. And….
The Slovinian stuck out a right arm, and blocked the ball, before it was cleared downfield. Now the brain was unfuddled. The noise that had fell so quiet and still, now registered a raucous cheering. Ridicule from the home fans. Unsympathetic jeers from those that had travelled the few miles across the city.
Credit to Bale however, his will and application never seemed to wilt and although come the end of the ninety minutes, Los Blancos had still drawn a blank in the goals stakes, the home leg was still to come, and the world’s most expensive player had performed as well as most of his team-mates.
Regardless of the size of the fee laid out for Bale, the biggest problem he will endure at the Spanish capital’s major club is simply that he isn’t Cristiano Ronaldo. Playing second-fiddle to probably world’s best/ second best (delete as your opinion demands) player is an onerous task. You must serve at his court and offer up tributes by the basketful. Fail to do so and the fans will offer scant regard. Now, that’s Real pressure.