In the absence through injury of the world's best player, Gareth Bale met the challenge and delivered a matchwinning performance in the Copa del Rey final
For Marc Bartra, the evening had been going very well. He had scored Barcelona’s equalising goal in the Copa del Rey final in Valencia’s heaving Mestalla stadium, a towering header from a set piece of the sort of which Sam Allardyce’s dreams are made. And he had spent much of 84 minutes as the game advanced into extra time demonstrating that all those obituaries for Barcelona’s season were somewhat premature. They were still alive, still in the game, their defence, despite all assumption, still operating intact.
And then Gareth Bale received a pass just inside the Barcelona half.
Bartra, seeing the tall, slim Welshman take possession, simply assumed he could muscle him off the ball. The defender shepherded him with little aplomb towards the touchline. But Bale was barely inconvenienced by the intrusion. Never mind that he was so far into touch he was practically in Marbella, he simply skipped round Bartra like he was a training ground dummy and, despite giving him at least a five yard start, ran on towards the Barcelona penalty box with the big Catalan floundering in his wash. Once in the area, with a coolness of head which belied the boiling atmosphere, Bale stabbed the ball expertly under the diving body of the Barca keeper Pinto into the net for the winning goal .
It was a strike that sparked wild celebrations. From the back of the press box a man ran down several dozen steps to fling himself into the arms of a Madrid supporter. A huge wave of white rolled across the stands. Down on the pitch, Bale was buried under an avalanche of whooping colleagues.
It was a magnificent goal, a reminder of Bale’s “Taxi for Maicon” moment in the San Siro as a Spurs player that had first brought him to the attention of the Madrid scouts, a glowing testament to his ability to influence the biggest of games.
“It was his most important goal,” said his coach Carlo Ancelotti, of a player who has now scored 20 in his debut season. “It was the most defining moment of the game.”
The Italian was right. In the absence through injury of the world’s best player, Ronaldo, who was watching the action from underneath a black cap decorated in the self-advertising CR7 logo, Bale had stepped up to the challenge and delivered.
And so had Real Madrid . They had shed their inferiority complex and shredded the aura of invincibility that surrounds their historic rivals’ passing game. For years the football world has known about Barcelona’s tika-taka tactics but appeared incapable of doing anything about them; even this season, Madrid has twice been undone by the endless rhythm of relentless possession. Now it appears everyone has worked out how to unpick the pass masters. Madrid simply tore at Barca. Every time they were in possession, Xabi Alonso or Luka Modric or the tireless, brilliant Isco would snap at them. It appeared the Catalans had no answer to such aggressive pressing.
“We thought that defending with four in the middle it would help stop the passes between the lines,” was how Ancelotti described his perfectly destructive tactics. “Then when we had the ball we could play as we always do, with Bale out wide and the full-backs pressing on.”
And in Bale Madrid had the perfect outlet. Every time he got the ball and ran at them, Barcelona looked suddenly vulnerable, suddenly exposed. No more so than in the 84th minute.
As for the defeated, forming up a search party to seek out Plan B does not appear to be on the agenda. Their beleaguered coach Tata Martino insisted their season was not over, even as it was. They would plough on as they always have, believing in the Barca way.
“I am hurting due to the defeat and for the people that came here with great expectations,” said the manager whose own expectations cannot be of anything other than imminent redundancy. “But Barca still has a lot left in it. There is no recipe to recover. The league does not look favourable for us but we have an obligation to fight until the last day.”
The talk was fighting. But the manner in which Real’s Welsh wizard had rolled their defence with such consummate ease, that was about all that is in Barcelona right now.