| Gareth Bale after scoring his first for Real, on Saturday. (Getty Images) |
Fame and fortune are not without a price in professional sports. Gareth Bale scored in his debut with Real Madrid on Saturday. Mesut Ozil, the man Madrid sold to get money to offset Bale’s world-record fee, shone for 80 minutes for his new team, Arsenal.
Neither player was fully match-fit. Neither would have started but for their undoubted talent, their willingness to risk their health, and the urgency the clubs felt to get them on the field.
All’s well that ends well, you might say. Bale is now a “Galactico,” and Real are anxious to get the rights rolling on the player who cost $135 million.
And so, with barely any preseason training since he injured an ankle last May, Bale played the first hour of Saturday’s tough and exhilarating 2-2 draw at Villarreal.
Carlo Ancelotti, the new Italian coach of Real, solved the supposed jealousy between Bale and the previous most costly player in history, Cristiano Ronaldo, by playing them on both wings.
Bale started on the right, exchanged roles with Ronaldo on the left, and they both drifted into the centre to pop in match-saving opportunist goals from barely a few yards out.
“They are both great players,” said the Italian coach. “It provides absolutely no problem at all.”
No problem for a coach who has seen it all, and done it all, as a player and a manager at the highest level. No problem for Ronaldo, whose status at the Bernabeu stadium was rewarded with a new contract that will dwarf even the one that Bale has just signed.
And no problem, or so it seemed, for a Villarreal side that has just been promoted from the second division with its costliest player, the Mexican Giovani dos Santos, having been acquired for just $6 million.
The calls on Madrid — and on every big club in Europe — to make available their players for World Cup qualifying games around the globe goes some way toward neutralising the huge monetary advantage that separates the Real Madrids from the Villarreals.
Real had 17 players scattered around the world over the past two weeks, and at least four of them were returned unfit for club duty. Ancelotti’s biggest headache was not to persuade Ronaldo and Bale to overlook their differences and to strain their joints; instead, it was to find enough fit men to form a makeshift defence.
But just before halftime, Bale stole behind the home defence (and behind Ronaldo) to stretch out for the equaliser. And then in the second half, from a similar situation, Ronaldo scored with a shot that hit a defender, rebounded back to the Madrid star, and then struck the keeper as it deflected across the line.
They all count. Goal No. 203 in 203 Liga appearances for Ronaldo. And goal No. 1 in one match for his new, as yet half-fit, partner in attack, Bale.
Thankfully, for the sake of justice, Villarreal’s rousing and relentless attacks were rewarded when Dos Santos sped through to convert Cani’s neat pass.
The pass is often just as important, at least, to the finishing stroke in soccer. Madrid have been awash since September 2 with disquiet after Real sold their passing maestro, Ozil, to help pay for Bale.
Ozil himself had made and scored goals for Germany in two World Cup games since then, but shortly after making himself acquainted to his new teammates at Arsenal, he fell ill. It seemed just a 24-hour bug, and though he travelled with the team to Sunderland, it seemed unlikely that Ozil would play there.
However, when Arsenal’s Spanish playmaker, Santi Cazorla, injured an ankle in training, manager Arsene Wenger felt he had to take the risk with his new signing.
“I took a gamble,” Wenger admitted.
That first half, the near 90-percent accuracy of Ozil’s passes, and the vision with which he set up the opening goal for Olivier Giroud, illuminated Arsenal’s 3-1 victory on the ground of a committed, but overmatched, Sunderland.
Arsenal, they said, was past their best days. Winning the English league, never mind the Champions League, were long-lost aspirations.
But by paying the price for Ozil, albeit for half the fee that it cost to get Bale, Arsenal have rekindled their challenge. NYT News Service