When it comes to making an early statement of intent, scoring a goal just 72 seconds into your team’s opening league fixture isn’t too shabby.
Gareth Bale is back, and after spearheading his country’s unlikely progression to the European Championships semi-finals, now the Welsh star is ready to take La Liga by storm again.
With both Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo absent through injury from Real Madrid’s season opener at Real Sociedad on Sunday, Los Blancos were looking for Bale to step up and perform a leadership role in a fixture which on paper looked decidedly tricky.
His early goal did just that, settling his team’s nerves and providing the foundations for a comfortable 3-0 victory which also saw Bale have the last word as he netted the final goal in stoppage time.
There is now absolutely no room for doubt over Bale’s importance at the Bernabeu. His place in the starting line-up is unquestioned, and there is a growing train of thought that he is gradually displacing Ronaldo as the team’s most important player.
You could even argue he has already achieved that status following his outstanding performances towards the end of last season.
In Madrid’s climactic and most important game of the campaign, the Champions League final against Atletico, it was Bale – not Ronaldo – who drove the team forward.
The enduring image of that evening might be Ronaldo wheeling away in celebration after netting the title-clinching penalty, but Los Blancos probably wouldn’t have got as far as the shoot-out without Bale’s dominant performance in the opening half-hour – culminating when he won a free-kick and then flicked on Toni Kroos’ delivery for Sergio Ramos to scramble in the opener.
Bale had also made the decisive intervention to take Madrid into the final in the first place, securing the only goal of the semi-final meeting with Manchester City as his cross deflected off Fernando and looped into Joe Hart’s goal.
A few weeks earlier, the Welshman also delivered a man-of-the-match performance in the game which arguably turned the tide for Zinedine Zidane’s previously unconvincing time in charge: the 2-1 Clasico victory at the Nou Camp, when he was extremely unfortunate to have a goal disallowed for a supposed push before teeing up Ronaldo for the late winner.
It marks an extremely impressive turnaround in fortunes from 12 months ago. Bale was entering the new campaign under Rafa Benitez with his future far from certain. He had produced a poor second season in Spain, especially in the latter stages when their challenge for silverware under Carlo Ancelotti withered away to nothing, and many felt he would not last the course.
Rather than becoming disheartened, Bale earned himself enormous credit by staying positive and working harder to fit into both the team and life in general, making a greater effort to learn and use the Spanish language, as well as doing more to integrate himself with the local community.
The results are plain to see, as even a series of injury problems didn’t prevent him from accepting more responsibilities for the functioning of the team, propelling him into his current new-found status among the Bernabeu’s alpha males.
Tactically, his biggest improvement has been a greater commitment to his defensive duties, with his willingness to track back and close down opposition wingers and full-backs a stark contrast to his casual approach to those chores during Ancelotti’s tenure.
Bale has simply become more mature, both in terms of his football and his mentality. He has come to terms with the demands of being the most expensive player at the world’s most wealthy club, and is flourishing.