With Cristiano Ronaldo out injured, Bale struck late in the day to capture a 19th Copa del Rey title for Real Madrid and left Neymar – another high-profile signing – in the shade
As the rest withered it was Gareth Bale who bloomed late. Tidy play from Isco and Fabio Coentrao in the 85th minute released the Welshman from the traps and into a race up the touchline with Marc Bartra. The Barcelona centre-back had no intention of chasing his adversary and attempted to buffet him out of play.
No chance. Bale was too strong, too fast, too good. He turned on the afterburners and let rip up the left side of Real Madrid’s attack. With the whites of Pinto’s eyes now in his vision, he maintained his composure and slipped between the legs of the Barcelona goalkeeper the goal which won a 19th Copa del Rey for Real Madrid.
It’s the big games by which the great players are remembered. There was widespread scepticism when Madrid parted with the best part of â‚¬100 million last summer to land the Tottenham man, and there were further question marks ahead of Wednesday’s final after he failed to score in the previous two Clasicos this season.
But over the course of a blistering first term in Spain, culminating in the cup win in Valencia, Bale has acquitted himself every step of the way. More than that, his name is now etched forever into Blancos folklore thanks to this landmark goal. â€œBale scored an important goal at a critical moment,” coach Carlo Ancelotti gushed at full time.
Real had more energy and a better game plan on the night and ran out thoroughly deserving winners despite the closeness of the scoreline. Isco, preferred to Asier Illaramendi, may have been booked within two minutes for an over-eager foul on Neymar but he exploited the space where Barcelona’s flat-footed midfield contingent should have been. Real were content to draw their great adversaries onto them and defend with Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso in front of a well-drilled back four. Time and again this match followed the same pattern. Barca broke down just past midfield and Isco or Di Maria took up the fight.
In blue and red there was sluggishness; the forward line too predictable. At one stage Xavi and Sergio Busquets ran into each other and gave up possession. Only the inventiveness of Andres Iniesta came close to unsettling the men in white. Lionel Messi barely budged from the edge of the box and snatched at his chances. An apology of a free-kick in the second half was as good as it got for the Argentina captain, who has suffered another alarming dip in form.
A moment on the hour mark exemplified this Real Madrid performance. Barcelona, for once, took possession from the capital side in midfield as Neymar robbed Alonso. His link-up with Messi brought Cesc Fabregas into the picture on the left of the Barca attack. Before he could even think about striking on goal, his path was cut off by Di Maria. He was tireless; as effective at snuffing out Barca’s incipient threats as he was carrying Madrid forward at the other end.
Deployed on the right of Ancelotti’s midfield three, Di Maria was involved from the outset. His goal after only 10 minutes characterised his endeavour and commitment.
As for the man to whom Bale is constantly compared – more heartache, more derision. They were the new faces of El Clasico when they signed on last summer. No prizes for guessing who will be remembered for a better rookie season in Spain.
Neymar had at his feet the opportunity to force extra-time and with that chance he could have shrugged off the doubters and the naysayers who lay the blame for Barca’s crumbling empire at his diamond-encrusted feet. Money talks. And whatever the price of Neymar, it would not have been begrudged in those precious few seconds after he struck the ball had it gone past Iker Casillas. He could not come up with the goods
The night belonged to Bale. His was the disallowed goal which could have put Carlo Ancelotti’s side two goals up just moments before Bartra levelled. It was a game, for 85 minutes of which, he had been on the end of things rather than in the middle of them. With his long, powerful strides and his composed finish, however, he fleetingly took the title of King of Madrid from the injured Cristiano Ronaldo who watched on from the stands.