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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Gareth Bale's Champions League final heroics delivered in defiance amid uncertain Real Madrid future

Welsh winger scored two goals, the first a stunner, to lead the Spanish giants to victory in Kiev

Zinedine Zidane looked like he knew the question was coming. When a man is so intimately connected with so many of Real Madrid’s European Cup triumphs he finds himself forever being asked to rank one next to another.

Zidane had just made his own history with a third successive Uefa Champions League title as a coach, just become the manager who has overseen more of Madrid’s 13 European Cups than anyone, when his judgement was sought.

The burning question, as soon as Zidane reached his victory press conference, was about the goals. How did that goal, Gareth Bale’s breathtaking overhead volley to break Liverpool in Kiev on Saturday night, rank for Zidane in a top three of spectacular strikes from Madrid’s 21st century European Cup odyssey?

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Was it first, second or third on a podium including Cristiano Ronaldo’s bicycle kick against Juventus in the quarter-final this season and Zidane’s own sweetly struck volley to win the 2002 final in Glasgow, against Bayer Leverkusen?

Zidane, not a man to blow his own trumpet as a player, and, by necessity, an increasingly assured diplomat as a coach, was not going to rank all three goals in order. He said simply: “All three are goals that made history for this club. But the last is always the most important, so Gareth’s.”

It was a truly sensational strike, Bale whirling into the sky, spontaneously, acrobatically, a Welsh whirl of limbs. It was the better for being conjured up in a final, with the scores at 1-1, better still for being the work of a man who had barely entered the field as a substitute, and who, by his own admission, had been close to seething to have been omitted from the original XI by Zidane.

Bale, meanwhile, knows clearly where he ranks the first of his two goals from an eventful, compelling final in his own catalogue of personal artworks. His best ever, he reckons.

“I’d have to say it is,” Bale said. “To score a goal like that on the biggest stage in world football, on such an important occasion. I have made many attempts at a goal like that and this one came off.”

It required presence of mind, confidence, athleticism and ... well, perhaps just a dash of defiance. “I just saw Marcelo clipping the ball in, at the right height, and thought: ‘Why not give it a go?’. It was great to see it fly into the back of the net.”

Bale strode into history with his goals – the second a beauty in its way, a fierce drive on which the Welshman applied, as he put it, “a bit of wobble” to confound a goalkeeper, Loris Karius, already suffering a wretched night – as Madrid extended their sovereignty over the most prestigious club competition in the sport.

He became the British player with the most gold medals in the European Cup, this his fourth, matching the 1970s and 80s record of the former Liverpool defender Phil Neal. He is the Briton with the most goals in finals, three now, excluding the spot-kick he converted in the penalty shoot-out via which Real beat Atletico Madrid in Milan in 2016.

In his delight, his pride had also been stung. His match-winning show only partially soothed scars from last June, and Bale’s third Champions League final, when in his native Cardiff, he played just 13 minutes, off the bench, of Madrid’s 4-1 win over Juventus.

This season he has started just once in the last seven European Cup matches for the club who five summers ago made him the world’s most expensive footballer.

Bale believed recent league form – five goals in his previous four matches – entitled him to a place in the Kiev XI.

“In my head I felt I should start,” he said. “I was disappointed to hear that I wasn’t going to. I know as a professional it’s not about just 11 players, it’s about a squad and the most important thing is to win the title. But I need to be playing every week. I feel if it’s not the case with Madrid, it’s something I have to consider and reflect on.”

That sounded like an ultimatum. At the end of an evening in which Cristiano Ronaldo, thoroughly overshadowed by Bale on the field, grumpily indicated he felt unsure about continuing at Madrid, it was hard not to appreciate how tough Zidane’s job can be, and to admire Madrid’s record-breaking manager all the more for the man-management challenges he faces daily.

“Everyone is bound to look out for themselves,” Zidane said of Bale’s unhappiness at his interrupted runs in the starting XI, many of which have been caused by injuries. “I always try to do the best for the team. Sometimes people deserve more time. This time, Bale made the difference for us.”