The Welshman was left on the bench as Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior were preferred in the attacking positions alongside striker Karim Benzema, but after coming on for Vinicius in the second half with the score at 2-1, he scored a well-taken goal to extend Real’s lead and kill off Atletico’s hopes of salvaging something from this game.
It was a crucial moment in the season for both club and player, with the result allowing Madrid to leapfrog their city rivals into second place in La Liga, just five points behind leaders Barcelona – though the Catalans can extend that lead on Sunday when they face Athletic Bilbao.
Bale has been one of Madrid’s best players this season when fit, shining in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, but the injury issues that have plagued his career in the Spanish capital have persisted this season. Saturday’s goal was his ninth of the season, but he’s also missed 11 games for Madrid in this campaign.
The goal was also Bale’s 100th for Los Blancos since joining in 2013, and Solari chose to dwell on the positives as the 29-year-old continued his habit of making decisive contributions in big games.
“He walked into the locker room very well and he was very happy with his goal,” Solari said during his post-game news conference, as reported by Goal.
“He helped define this match because it was very much alive at this point. But thanks to his goal it ended the match and he’s very good.”
Having surpassed the world-record transfer fee set by new team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, the Welshman was tasked with breaking into the elite bracket and eventually usurping the Portuguese icon as the club’s superstar talent.
Ronaldo’s own evolution from left-wing weapon to penalty box predator meant Bale – through fault of his poor injury record as well – was ultimately forced to bend his game to the demands of Real’s spearhead.
Yet, when the time finally arrived for Bale to step up and out of Ronaldo’s shadow after he departed for Juventus last summer, the spotlight has now shifted elsewhere.
Vinicius Junior demands attention and does so by shining when the focus, be it from defenders or the crowd, is on him. Indeed, the teenager is a showman.
He not only embraces the collective gaze, but thrives on it also, no matter the stage, with the intensity of the fixture only increasing his performance levels and then by extension the hype.
Vinicius is fearless going at Godin and Jimenez. This is just the beginning for him. pic.twitter.com/0Z5mVJEb0Z— KyKy (@andresbravoo) February 9, 2019
The Brazilian started the Clasico Copa del Rey semi-final clash at the Camp Nou and illuminated that tie. He was instrumental again during the Madrid Derby at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday, serving up a quite epic outside-of-the-boot pass to Lucas Vazquez and earning a penalty for Real’s second.
Gerard Pique and Diego Godin are two world-class and experienced centre-backs and they have both been dragged out of position to deal with him.
Everyone else, be it right-back or centre-back, has had no clue how to handle him. In just short of an hour, he made two successful dribbles, one key pass, an interception plus the penalty reward.
Real practically initiated every attack through Vinicius either by spreading play from left to right or navigating down the channel on his side. That’s been their plot forward in all six of the consecutive league games he’s now started in.
It isn’t just what Vinicius does from an attacking perspective either. Indeed, his industry defensively is just as notable, his work rate to cover every inch of the left side pivotal in enabling Real to press high and intensely. On both sides of the ball his energy has formed the fulcrum of Real’s plans.
His substitution for Bale before the hour mark was perplexing given his influence. Bale – again mostly due to injury as opposed to his talent – is virtually right back to where he started, in the dark and in the shadow of another star.
This time, though, the 29-year-old faces a newer, younger, faster and potentially even more marketable rival.
Granted, he did remind us all of his endearing quality with a trademark arrowed strike. It was his 100th goal for the club in all competitions, a momentous one indeed, yet even that landmark was silhouetted against the vivacity of Vinicius.
It’s a welcome rivalry for Santiago Solari, and the Champions League tie in Ajax on Wednesday will lend further credence to Vinicius’ establishment as Real’s first-choice for the front three alongside Karim Benzema. Bale will be left to fight it out with Marco Asensio and Vazquez for a starting berth or settle for another subsidiary role to Vinicius from the bench.
In truth, he should be accustomed to this by now, Bale just perhaps didn’t expect to be usurped by a raw 18-year-old who hasn’t even played half a season for Los Blancos yet.
“I’m not fazed by anything, I play for Real Madrid, the best team in the world and I fear nothing,” he said ahead of the Barca clash.
That includes Bale and anyone else trying to compete for his spot in the team.
Saturday saw Thibaut Courtois’s first visit to Wanda Metropolitano as a Real Madrid player. The former Atletico Madrid custodian was jeered throughout the game and had toy rats thrown at him.
But the Belgian was unperturbed by this and revealed he was completely focused on the game.
“I was calm and had a cool head,” he later said of his approach to this game, according to Marca.
“I didn’t see the plaque, I’m not about that. I was preparing to play. I was here for three years and that can’t be erased. I have maximum respect for Atletico.
“People respect me and the Atletico fans I meet on the street wish me the best. What happened is that this is a derby, so it’s a different kind of match.”
The Belgian also spoke about where Los Blancos stand in the La Liga title race now and how they will put up a fight until the last match.
“You always have to believe,” he said.
“We had a bad month in October and January started poorly, but now we’re doing well. We feel really good and it’s important to win matches against direct rivals, like we did today.
“We need to fight until the final match, but this coming month is a decisive one.”