ZACH HICKS on how he fell in love with Gareth Bale, following his direct run and goal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final
“Why would anyone sell Mesut Özil to buy Gareth Bale?” I thought in the summer of 2013. I loved Mesut Özil and his ability to pull the strings on the counter, and I thought keeping him was an absolutely perfect way to maximise what remained of Cristiano Ronaldo’s prime. Bringing in Gareth Bale felt to me like we were replacing a grand piano with a jackhammer.
Most of that season Bale played pretty well, but I still was not convinced we had made the right decision. Carlo Ancelotti was steering us towards finally getting La Decima after so many years of waiting.
He was also directing us towards a Copa del Rey title. Now, normally as a Madridista I only care so much about Spain’s domestic cup, but winning it in 2014 would make it very likely that Barcelona went without a trophy that season, and that doesn’t happen very often.
The final of the Copa was to be 16 April. On 3 April we ran into a major problem. Cristiano Ronaldo had thigh problems (that would bother him all the way through that summer’s World Cup). Ronaldo has never been my favourite Madrid player, but there was no doubt he was the best we had and not having him against Barcelona in the Copa final was a huge blow.
Ángel Di Maria gave us the lead early, but a goal off a Xavi corner allowed the Culés to draw level after 68 minutes. With Neymar and Lionel Messi both on the field, I did not like our chances.
Then lightning struck and that sledgehammer I thought we never should have bought permanently changed my opinion of him. A Fábio Coentrão pass up the left sideline broke Barcelona pressure and released Gareth Bale on the break. Bale was one on one with Marc Bartra and with no one further back Bale knocked the ball out ahead in an attempt to create a foot race with the Barcelona defender.
Bartra responded by shoving Bale out of bounds to get a head start up the pitch. A lot of forwards would have gone down at that point and taken the foul, but not Gareth Bale, who turned on the jets and not only caught Bartra, but beat him to the ball. Just that run by itself would have been a display of pace and power very few players on earth could have produced, but he did not stop there.
Gareth Bale collected the ball, took two extra touches and nutmegged José Manuel Pinto as the Madrid fans at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium exploded in cheers and disbelief. It had taken Bale just 12 seconds from his first touch to score the goal, and Barcelona had no chance of recovering from it. The man had put the team on his back and won the Copa Del Rey.
A few weeks later Bale would score the first goal in the Champions League final as well. Despite the numerous injuries he has faced in his time at the Santiago Bernabéu, he has a number of important goals to his name, but that is the one that will always stick out to me as the one that convinced me that trading in Özil, the artist, for Bale, was a good move. Every time I see fans talking about wanting to sell Bale I think of that goal. For me, the world record fee we paid for him was well worth it for the two trophies his goals sealed for us that year, never mind the great things he has helped the team accomplish since.
Bale is one of my favourite players to ever wear the white shirt, because of what he displayed that evening at the Mestalla. Too many forwards in the modern game go down at the slightest provocation and are not willing to put in maximum effort that far away from goal to try to make something happen. I still love Mesut Özil, he’s a wizard, but it’s the Welsh fire-breathing dragon for me