Bale was the Spanish side’s galáctico on the pitch in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and he only flickered into life against Manchester City
|Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale was unable to impose himself on Manchester City in their goalless semi-final first leg. Photograph: Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images|
Three things of interest happened here. First Ronaldo declared himself hors de combat, although with the regal caveat that if this had been a truly big game he would have played.
After which these semi-finalists played out a messy 85 minutes of slow‑simmer first-leg football. Finally Joe Hart produced a brilliant all‑or‑nothing block with his chest at the feet of Pepe, an entirely misleading moment of excitement for any latecomer TV viewers.
At the end of which Real Madrid will have left the Etihad happier at a 0-0 draw that slants this tie their way, if not decisively. City will perhaps rue a missed opportunity. A 0-0 draw at home is, so Champions League lore goes, generally a pretty decent result. And yet this always seemed City’s best chance of nosing ahead against a team without a clean sheet away from home in the league since November.
City did see off for 90 minutes Madrid’s key galáctico who was on the pitch, a semi-absent Gareth Bale. Relief at which seems to have stilled their own attacking instincts. They never did drive properly at this slightly depleted Real team, or attack with the same confidence they showed at times against Paris Saint‑Germain in the previous round.
But then there is a disorientating glare about playing Madrid. Not least at this stage in the competition, a tie styled as a meeting of old and new, royals versus parvenus. Madrid remain inseparable from this competition, from the early golden era, the first incarnation of the big money fantasy formula in the Di Stéfano years.
Even news of Ronaldo’s absence produced a tangible sense of absence beyond the reach of most athletes. Even, perhaps for some among the home crowd, Madrid and Ronaldo is after all one of the great spectacles of the sporting age. When Madrid are in town they’re the only show in town, a club that travels like a Tudor royal household, on the march with the full hand of hounds, pigs, footmen in tow. Here the press rooms thronged with hangers-on, wonks, gladhanders and media foot soldiers of every nationality, desperate for a sliver of white-shirted glam.
With Ronaldo reduced to strutting about in the warm-ups and then retreating grandly out of sight, the spotlight fell naturally on the next in line. Before kick-off Bale was heartily booed by a section of the City fans, replying with a brief wave. This was the first time the world’s most expensive footballer had played in England since his departure in 2013 as reigning player of the year (as an aside anyone wondering about the trajectory of the Premier League star system might want to trace a finger along a graph that reads Bale, Suárez, Hazard, Mahrez: from the stellar to the worthy).
Bale came here in a happy place. He is currently the only real superstar British footballer out there, the undoubted top gun when England play Wales in France in seven weeks’ time. And yet here he was a flickering presence, as he can be sometimes, menacing in possession but glimpsed only rarely, shut down by some excellent pressing from City’s midfield double bolt, the Fernandinho‑Fernando axis.
Even in snatches Bale is a thrilling footballer, with a wonderful surging simplicity in his movements. His only notable touch of the opening 10 minutes was a neat little backheel on the right touchline to set Karim Benzema away. After which he drifted out completely, before materialising again by the touchline to produce a marvellous curling cross at full sprint by the corner flag. Later he appeared suddenly striding though midfield, top knot jouncing rakishly, drawing a body check from Vincent Kompany.
After which Bale entered standby mode as the game became a little snarky and messy. There were the usual shenanigans from the hilariously villainous Pepe, tugging back Kevin De Bruyne then lunging straight through him and drawing an overdue booking. It would be tempting, with any other player, to suggest Pepe was acting under orders, that fouling De Bruyne was a plan. But Pepe only has one plan anyway: this plan.
Moments later Sergio Ramos escaped without a card for an ankle-raking slide on Fernandinho, somehow managing to confuse the referee Cuneyt Cakir of Turkey with his wild protestation, his charisma, aftershave, club badge. Pepe and Ramos: it is hard to imagine a more infuriating pair of velvet glove hatchet men.
Bale crept vaguely back into the game towards the end. Madrid hit the bar from a corner. Bale paused theatrically before punting a promising a free-kick into the wall. From the corner Bale headed down and Hart produced that wonderful save.
And that was that, a white-out. City’s own galácticos, David Silva, Sergio Agüero, De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, £160m of attacking talent, were all on the pitch at some stage but mustered just two shots on target. Ronaldo, Madrid’s own pump-action shotgun, will be back at the Bernabéu. Bale is unlikely to be so invisible. Dazzled a little by the white light, City may have missed a chance to assert their own strengths on a night of absences.