x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

School starts early for Bale at Real Madrid

Injuries mean player will make his debut for Madrid against Villarreal tonight according to coach, writes Andy Mitten.

Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, left, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Sergio Perez / Reuters
Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, left, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Sergio Perez / Reuters

Gareth Bale will make his eagerly awaited Real Madrid debut at Villarreal tonight.

Carlos Ancelotti, his coach, was forthcoming before setting off for Spain’s smallest Primera Liga city (population, 44,000), saying: “Bale will play 100 per cent. I don’t know if he’ll start, or play the second half. His physical condition isn’t the best, but not so bad.”

Ancelotti also suggested that the world’s most expensive player, who signed with Madrid on September 1, will play on the right side. Given that Ancelotti is not one for the deceitful devilment of his predecessor Jose Mourinho, his pronouncements could help Marcelino, Villarreal’s coach, plan his tactics.

Both teams have won all three league games played so far. Bale is unlikely to start, but he was not expected to be in the squad at the start of the week.

The talk then was of Ancelotti devising a “mini-pre-season” for the former Tottenham man, who has not played in a league game since last season.

Injuries to the defenders Fabio Coentrao, Marcelo and Alvaro Arbeloa prompted Ancelotti to reassess and mean that he now does not have the luxury of waiting for the newcomer to be in peak form.

Bale conceded that he was behind his teammates in terms of fitness, but he did feature for 32 minutes in Wales’ 3-0 loss to Serbia at midweek. After that game, Madrid’s first Welsh player arrived at their Valdebebas training ground on Wednesday afternoon, where he looked like a child on his first day at senior school.

Much was made of Cristiano Ronaldo being the first to meet and greet Bale in the car park, the senior prefect meeting the new boy. If the pair get it right on the pitch, they could help Madrid achieve their obsession of a 10th European Cup. Bale said he had learnt that decima means “10th” in Spanish.

The world’s two most expensive footballers shook hands, and since Ronaldo is one of the few players on the team who speaks English, he will be key to Bale settling in a room where many have failed, a dressing room riven with internal politics, cliques and ego.

Frequent changes of coaches mean the players and the club president hold the power, though what they say publicly and what happens in private often contrasts.

The mood has improved since Mourinho departed, though you still have Madrid legends who despise their president and yet, feel they need to be kissing cousins with him in public.

Bale was all smiles on Thursday when he was the main attraction at the launch of Madrid’s lurid orange third kit, along with Marcelo and Karim Benzema.

A Madrid jersey with Bale’s name costs €100 (Dh488), beyond the means of Spain’s six million unemployed, but Madrid look well beyond their national borders to sell merchandise.

Bale praised Ronaldo, saying of the meeting: “It was amazing. He’s a nice guy. He welcomed me warmly. He made me feel welcome, just like everybody else did.”

Like a prince bowing to the king, Neymar made similar flattering noises about Lionel Messi when he arrived at Barcelona, yet Ronaldo must make some compromises to help Bale incorporate his many talents, such as speed, versatility and an intuition to shoot from distance, which Ronaldo shares.

Madrid have coach Zinedine Zidane on hand to get their “official” message across – that Ronaldo is “the most expensive player in history”, when Bale actually cost more. The media in Spain and England reported very different figures.

“The arrival of Bale is very important,” said Zidane, the former France captain. “He has been the best player in the Premier League over the last two seasons and he will help us a lot. Madrid must always sign the very best players. That’s why it is the most valuable club in the world, which is why it belongs to its members. If not, that would be impossible.”

The ego massaging and competitive tension can work well when the team wins, and so far, Madrid are winning.

Having worked at Juventus, Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, Ancelotti is a master of incorporating elite players in his team and managing megalomaniac owners.

He will need all of those skills in Madrid, a club Mourinho struggled to control. His first test is tonight, but for now, it is all smiles as Madrid show off their latest stellar signing.