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There is no doubt about it; goals have the ability to change everything in the world of soccer, which includes current Real Madrid hotshots Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. Saturday’s Champions League final in Lisbon, a hard-fought encounter between two marvellously talented teams, was somewhat marred (at least in the eyes of some) by the lack of overall spark injected into the game by two players at the peak of their ability. It was a stage set-up for the duo, unmatched largely in both pace and skill, to display their talent in front of the world’s audience. It simply did not happen.
With a resounding victory in Madrid’s semi-final second leg against Bayern Munich, thanks in part to two goals by Ronaldo and a solid display by Bale, it looked as though they were just warming up. Sure, there were multiple occasions in the game where one could clearly see both players stood head and shoulders above their German counterparts, not to mention the other nine players in their own team, but at the same time it felt as though neither the Portuguese or the Welshman ever moved into top gear. The tie was earned comprehensively by five goals to nil on aggregate, and although final opponents Atletico Madrid went on to win the Spanish league three points ahead of Real, the one off game seemed to favor the Galacticos’ relentless attacking style.
After a brief scare in which it appeared as though Ronaldo may not be fit to start the game, him and Bale took to the pitch in preparation to show just why they’re worth a staggering £165,000,000 ($278,000,000) between them. As has come to be expected in modern matches of such magnitude, the opening few minutes were cagey, with sluggish possession for both teams despite well-known attacking talents on the field (Atletico’s talisman Diego Costa had to be withdrawn after just nine minutes with a persistent hamstring problem). The real problem as far as Real Madrid should have been concerned, was that neither winger, Ronaldo or more blatantly Bale, was playing solely on the wing. It is a clear example of how goals can change everything, perception of play included.
Atletico have an outstanding defensive set-up that saw them concede just 26 goals in their 38-game domestic league season, but big players are for big occasions, and world’s most expensive player Bale should have been a thorn in Atletico left-back Filipe Luis’ side. Instead, both he and Ronaldo continued to drift in-field, leaving the capable but far less penetrative Angel Di Maria and Daniel Carvajal to fill the gaps. One might assume this was because each thought they could find more success against the Atletico center-backs, but a terrier-like performance from Di Maria earned him Man of the Match and proved there was fortune to be had down the flanks.
The few chances that did come Bale’s way were wasted, and possession itself was uncommonly rare for the usually tenacious Ronaldo. They failed to leave a visible mark on the game and looked out of sorts when push came to shove. Of course, that was only until the 20th minute of extra time, when Di Maria sliced through the Atletico defense and provided a deflected shot right in the path of Bale, whose poor form until then couldn’t see such a glaring opportunity missed. With Real a goal up, the tie became a formality, with Marcelo adding his name to the score-sheet before, in the final minute of extra time, Ronaldo converted a calmly-taken penalty.
For the stats-men behind soccer, it will look as though Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo inspired a wonderful Real Madrid performance and were the driving force behind their 4-1 victory. In reality, both will look back at the game with slight disappointment that they couldn’t reach the dizzy heights of skill and flair that many were expecting.
For Ronaldo, already a veteran of momentous occasions having played in three Champions League finals and multiple international competitions with Portugal, Saturday’s unimpressive performance is most likely a one-off. He has shown his worth on the world stage time and time again, and a player can’t be the best there is every game. For Bale however, a man that only joined Madrid this season and appeared in just his third major final on Saturday, it may be a sign that he has trouble playing to his best when it really counts. For the time being, both will be happy that their poor contribution to the Champions League final didn’t cost them a winner’s medal, and be counting their blessings that in soccer, goals really do change everything.
Commentary by Zachary John C