Champions League: With match-winning performance in final, Gareth Bale can end Real Madrid career on a high
With four UEFA Champions League titles, one La Liga and two FIFA Club World Cups, Bale has won every possible club honour and at 28, he is in the prime of his career.
"I feel that I need to be playing every week. It's something that I've always wanted to do, something that I feel like I should be doing. If it's not the case here, then it's something I have to really consider and sit down and do. I'll do that in the summer. I have plenty of time now to relax, to reflect on things and see where things go," Gareth Bale's admission after the 2018 UEFA Champions League final aren't words one expects from the footballer who just won his club an unprecedented third consecutive UEFA Champions League.
European cup finals are almost always strung with emotions and Saturday night at Kiev wasn't an exception by any means. Unfortunate injuries to Mohamed Salah and Daniel Carvajal had dampened the atmosphere at Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex, and for all the tactically enticing scenarios both clubs came up with, the quality of football on display was of pretty casual nature.
The eventual 3-1 scoreline in favour of Real Madrid glossed over the fact that Jurgen Klopp's side had proven to be worthy opponents, especially with the likes of Toni Kroos and Cristiano Ronaldo displaying their sombre, unthreatening personas. The game was evenly poised at 1-1 at the hour mark after Sadio Mane cancelled out Karim Benzema's opener but it was devoid of any dramatic moments whatsoever. Both sets of fans had already been through an emotional rollercoaster, yet the game was as vapid as a flat tune being bellowed out at a spiritless concert.
Enter Gareth Bale, perhaps Southampton's most renowned academy graduate to face off other ex-Southampton players. The Welsh international has only been in the fringes of Zinedine Zidane's first-team this season, initially due to an injury and later because he simply did not figure in the Frenchman's plans. Having started Los Blancos' final La Liga fixture, Bale had made a strong case for a start in the Champions League final, but Zidane trusted Benzema instead (who, in all fairness, did score the first goal). With only 99 minutes under his belt in this season's Champions League knockout fixtures prior to Saturday, Bale had a point to prove.
His first involvement included a couple of one-twos with Luka Modric at the centre of the park, following which he took up an advanced position in Liverpool's penalty area. The Liverpool backline had held up spectacularly against Real Madrid's onslaughts until then, but the defending champions orchestrated a 20-pass move which culminated with Marcelo crossing the ball into Liverpool's defensive third, resulting in one of the most remarkable goals ever seen in the history of UEFA Champions League.
Marcelo's cross was just behind Bale who promptly turned around and stuck his left leg out over his head, his foot connecting with the ball with absolute precision as the ball wheezed past an outstretched Karius. If Ronaldo's bicycle kick at Turin prompted a standing ovation out of Juventus fans, Gareth Bale's stunning goal caused even the otherwise stoic Zidane to express his elation.
It was a moment of beauty, one which not only found its place in the library of amazing goals but instantaneously brought the roof down at the Olimpiyskiy NSC; Bale's sliding celebrations across the turf sending Real Madrid fans into a frenzy as temperatures soared in the stadium.
Bale's second goal of the night appeared even more breathtaking for the millions of eyeballs in the stadium and across the globe, although a more circumspect, efficient goalkeeper would have been expected to save that shot. Karius' error, however, cannot take away from the power and swerve with which Bale bestowed the shot.
The Welshman is a generational talent and arguably Britain's finest export ever, even surpassing the exceptional Steve McManaman, whose legacy at Santiago Bernabeu is considered unparalleled by football lovers. Bale, however, is correct to acknowledge the uncertainty of his imminent future in Madrid as he has featured in less than 2400 minutes across all competitions for Real Madrid.
Not only has he been overlooked by Zidane on a repeated basis, the 28-year-old has found himself frozen out of crucial matches without any explanation. "It might be complicated. But everybody looks out for themselves and takes care of their own thing, and I understand that." Zidane isn't benevolent with assurances over playing time, even for Real's best outfield player in the Champions League final, a ploy which could motivate Bale to find greener pastures.
Speculations have been rife regarding Real Madrid's transfer targets this summer – with big-money names like Neymar and Eden Hazard available for cherry-picking. Gareth Bale's unsettled attitude and his comments have already sounded out a number of Premier League clubs as well as the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich.
With four UEFA Champions League titles, one La Liga and two FIFA Club World Cups, Bale has won every possible club honour and at 28, he is in the prime of his career. His ability to accelerate as well as muscle past defenders and his eye for goal makes him a player of inimitable calibre even with his unenvious injury history. The Welshman could not have hoped for a better farewell than his sensational brace at Kiev – his performances already earning him a deserving pedestal in Real Madrid's glorious history irrespective of his future crusades, in or outside Spain.
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