Champions League: Returning Ronaldo to boost Real Madrid's final bid against Man City

A year ago as Gareth Bale sneaked out the side exit to Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium he was engulfed by cat calls and insults by his own fans.

They were infuriated at his inability to take a slew of chances as Madrid bowed out of the Champions League semi-finals to Juventus.

Twelve months on, Bale is the man fit and in form as Real looked to seal their place in a 14th European Cup final on Wednesday when Manchester City visit the Bernabeu with their semi-final delicately poised a 0-0 after the first leg.

Real Madrid players during a training session ahead of the semi-final second leg. AFP

Real Madrid players during a training session ahead of the semi-final second leg. AFP

Bale has stood up to be counted in the absence of injured three-time World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo in recent weeks to keep Madrid's hopes of a La Liga and Champions League double alive.

For the first time in his three years in Madrid, the Welshman has stamped his authority on the side to demonstrate he could prove to be Ronaldo's successor as top dog at the Bernabeu as president Florentino Perez hoped when shelling out over 100 million euros ($114 million) to secure his services from Tottenham Hotspur.

By Bale's own admission, his second season in the Spanish capital was one to forget as Madrid ended the campaign without a major trophy having promised so much during a 22-game winning run from September to January.

"Maybe last season I didn't play to anywhere near to my potential," he said recently.

"It's good to have a bad season, you really do learn a lot about yourself and I feel this season I took last season on board.

"I understand the game a lot more over here and hopefully there is a lot still more to come in the future."

Bale has already experienced Champions League glory, scoring in the final against local rivals Atletico Madrid to deliver Real's treasured "La Decima" - a 10th European Cup.

Yet, even that didn't shield the 26-year-old from the criticism that followed last season.

Bale has often struggled to adapt to his surroundings in the Spanish capital and the pressure that comes with being the world's most expensive player.

He has yet to speak to the media in Spanish, although he claims to be able to make himself understood in the dressing room.

Yet, his image as an over-priced and injury-prone luxury has been transformed in recent weeks as he led a fightback from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Rayo Vallecano with a double last weekend and followed that up with the winner as an under-strength Real won a 10th consecutive La Liga game 1-0 at Real Sociedad on Saturday.

Madrid sports daily AS's front page on Saturday morning declared: "The league goes through Bale."

Whilst his talent was doubted by few, the character, personality and leadership shown by Bale in Ronaldo's absence has surprised many in Madrid.

Yet, his resurgence still lacks the kudos of a famous Champions League night at the Bernabeu.

Bale has yet to register a goal in this season's competition, whilst Ronaldo has 16 in 10 games -- including a stunning hat-trick that turned around a 2-0 first leg deficit to Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals.

"I thought as soon as La Decima was done, they’d be happy," Bale told The Times last week.

"But no, It's just in the club’s nature, they want to win the European Cup every year. It's instilled in you and you go for it every year."

Ronaldo is expected to return from a thigh strain on Wednesday, but City's visit offers Bale the chance to step out of his shadow and make his mark when it really matters at Madrid.

Caoch Zidane is confident Ronaldo will be ready for another famous European night at the Santiago Bernabeu after scoring a hat-trick to overturn a 2-0 first leg deficit against Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals.

Indeed, Ronaldo could break his own record for goals in a Champions League campaign from two years ago of 17 having hit 16 in just 10 appearances this season.


Factfile:

First leg: Manchester City (ENG) 0 Real Madrid 0

Real Madrid

Injured Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo watched from the stands last Tuesday but the three-time World Player of the Year and the Portuguese returned to training on Sunday. He has been in blistering form in the Champions League this season, scoring 16 goals in 10 appearances. Karim Benzema came off injured at half-time in the first leg and is a mild doubt. Gareth Bale was also ineffective in the first leg but his thunderous header kept an under-strength Real in the chase for the La Liga title with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Real Sociedad on Saturday, their tenth league win in a row.

Man City

Manchester City go to Madrid knowing a score draw is enough for them to qualify for a first ever Champions League final after the 0-0 draw in Manchester last week where Joe Hart kept City's hopes alive with two key saves. But City go into the game on the back of a painful 4-2 league defeat at Southampton on Sunday where coach Manuel Pellegrini made eight changes. Only Hart, Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho started against Madrid and Southampton, and while Yaya Toure is expected to be fit, David Silva will miss the return leg. On a positive note striker Kelechi Iheanacho scored twice in the weekend defeat while Hart picked the ball out of his net four times mainly because he was at the mercy of his own leaky defence.

Coaches:

Real Madrid - Zinedine Zidane (FRA) -- 43 yrs Manchester City - Manuel Pellegrini (CHI) -- 62 yrs

Leading scorers in all competitions:

Manchester City - Sergio Aguero (28 goals)

Real Madrid - Cristiano Ronaldo (47 goals)

Road to quarter-finals:

Manchester City - Winners of Group D ahead of Juventus; beat Dynamo Kiev (UKR) 3-1 on aggregate in last 16, beat Paris Saint Germain 3-2 in the quarter-finals

Real Madrid - Winners of Group A ahead of Paris Saint-Germain; beat Roma (ITA) 4-0 on aggregate in last 16, beat Wolfsburg 3-2 on aggregate


Published Date: May 04, 2016 11:51 pm | Updated Date: May 04, 2016 11:59 pm


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