Madrid (AFP) – 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.
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.
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