There was an air of surprise when the Real Madrid team-sheet dropped for their 2018 Club World Cup bow and Gareth Bale was in the XI.
Ongoing ankle issues had seen him miss the weekend’s drab 1-0 La Liga win against Rayo Vallecano. Head coach Santiago Solari, however, gained reward for thrusting the Wales superstar straight into action in Abu Dhabi against Kashima Antlers.
Here, we review his emphatic semi-final run-out.
Anticipation abounded at a revamped Zayed Sports City as holders Madrid walked out, after a year away.
A repeat of 2016’s tense final added further intrigue. But even a low-octane Los Blancos proved to have more than enough to claim victory from a clash between the AFC and UEFA Champions League winners.
The forgettable first half was brought to life on 44 minutes when Brazil left-back Marcelo’s delicate flick was smashed into the bottom corner by Bale. Calamitous defending, twice, by Kashima then offered the same player an open goal to settle nerves, before Marcelo turned provider and Bale thrashed in for his hat-trick.
Late consolation from Shoma Doi, via the video assistant referee, barely registered.
Making the difference – The summer sale of Cristiano Ronaldo has left space, at centre stage, for Madrid.
Bale has often struggled to fill it, however, during a campaign in which he was booed in November and failed to score in La Liga for 802 minutes.
The ex-Tottenham flyer was utterly ruthless against Kashima, even on one leg. All three finishes were emphatic, moving him onto 10 goals in 21 appearances for the campaign.
Ronaldo got the only goal in last year’s final against Gremio and grabbed a hat-trick against Kashima in 2016. Bale is now going about making history repeat itself.
Fitness fears – No-one can truly doubt the talent of Bale, bar the most irascible elements of the temperamental Madrid support.
Throughout his Los Blancos career, however, injury has cast a shadow. In Abu Dhabi, Bale wasn’t just taken off to gain instant applause for his hat-trick.
He gingerly trudged off on the hour mark – its timing looked planned – for Spain wide man Marco Asensio.
The walk from the centre circle looked pained, a degree uncertain despite his exploits minutes prior.
What kind of condition will he be in for Saturday’s showdown with hosts Al Ain?
28th min WASTED CHANCE: Bale does excellently to control a bouncing ball, lifting it over several befuddled defenders. But a frustrating mis-hit follows.
44th min GOAL: This is what Madrid are all about. Ballon d’Or holder Modric exchange passes out wide. The ball then comes to Marcelo, whose exquisite pass sends Bale through to fire in an unstoppable low shot.
53rd MIN GOAL: Oh dear, oh dear. Left-back Shuto Yamamoto dangerously passes in field, centre-back Jung Seung-hyun panics and it leaves Bale with an open goal. Thank you, very much.
55th min GOAL: Marcelo finds the ball, centrally, on the edge of the penalty box. He waits for the perfect moment to slip in Bale, to smash high into the far corner. Emphatic.
60th min SUBSTITUTED: Bale’s work is done and his ankle can be rested. On comes Asensio.
Bale’s finishers could not be questioned in Abu Dhabi.
One air shot aside, he converted any glimmer of a chance. His rocked past South Korea goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae was sensational – few players can do those sort of things, with any regularity.
Solari, however, would have winced when Bale slowly jogged off the park. Rest, recovery and recuperation will be vital to get the 29-year-old firing on all cylinders for the weekend showpiece with buoyant Al Ain.
It might not matter against CWC opponents, but Bale has to be consistently at his best by the time Los Blancos’ UCL defence restarts next year.
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