Real Madrid's Gareth Bale is on the brink of Champions League history and says: Zinedine Zidane is like Harry Redknapp... he tells me to fly
- Champions League final 2016: Real Madrid vs Atletico Madrid news
- Gareth Bale returns to the San Siro six years after tormenting Inter Milan
- He will play in his second Champions League final in three years
- Real Madrid face their city rivals Atletico two years after winning in Lisbon
- Bale looks back fondly to his last visit to Milan and praises Harry Redknapp
- He says Zinedine Zidane instils the same belief into his Real Madrid players
- Bale, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have scored 99 goals this season
When the 22 players contesting the Champions League final walk out on to the San Siro pitch, no one should feel more at home than Gareth Bale.
He has only played there once before but he owned the place that night — owned the Inter Milan goalkeeper Julio Cesar, owned both the full backs Maicon and Javier Zanetti, owned every blade of grass.
‘I haven’t looked back from then really, that game gave me the confidence to know I could play against the best,’ says Bale, six years after his hat-trick for 10-man Tottenham Hotspur brought them back from 4-0 down to 4-3 and meant the whole world woke up to his talent.
He returns to the San Siro for what will be his second Champions League final in three seasons.
Gareth Bale trains at the San Siro alongside the likes of Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo
Bale burst onto the international scene in October 2010 with a devastating hat-trick against Inter Milan
‘You can’t say the Spurs game went well because we lost, but we said after the game that if it had gone on for another five minutes we would have scored again. With me on the left and Aaron Lennon on the right wing, we just kept bombarding them with pace. They didn’t really know what to do in the end.’
Maicon lived the same nightmare two weeks later at White Hart Lane but he wasn’t the last to suffer. In the Spanish Cup final in 2014, Barcelona’s Marc Bartra tried to bring Bale down just past the halfway line, only to see him sprint off the pitch and then back on before racing away to score.
There is a boyish joy that comes to the surface at the mention of some of these special moments — the internet virals with him cast as Road Runner beep-beeping past Bartra for the Copa del Rey-winning goal and the ‘Taxi for Maicon’ chant that echoed around White Hart Lane.
‘My friends were calling me up and sending messages and stuff after the Inter game,’ he says. ‘But at the time I didn’t know what it was they were singing. I didn’t even realise how many times I had gone past Maicon.
‘It was just that every time I got the ball I said to myself: “Go!” And I had Harry Redknapp screaming: “Run! Run!”
‘After the Copa del Rey final I didn’t realise that I had gone off the pitch so far but after the game my friends were sending me funny videos and it is then you see things that you miss during the game because you’re so focused and the prize is so big.’
Bale eases past Maicon at White Hart Lane as Spurs won their group and reached the quarter-finals
Bale celebrates his glorious goal at the Mestalla which secured the Copa del Rey two years ago
The prize is big again. He has already won one European Cup. Speaking in one of the classrooms inside Madrid’s vast training complex — next to a flip-chart that still has some Spanish verb practice written on it — he sounds like a man who has grown up at Real.
He sounds like someone whose intelligence on the pitch now matches the physical attributes that have always made him stand out.
There were already signs of a mental toughness in the final two years ago. He missed several chances late on as Real Madrid were desperately trying to equalise against Atletico Madrid, but his head never dropped. ‘I never thought it was over,’ he insists. ‘You are looking up and you see 87 minutes and then 89, 90 and then you know it is injury time.
‘But I felt that if we scored we would win it so I was just praying “please let us get a goal” and when we did the place erupted.
‘I missed a few chances before and I think before I came here maybe I would have gone into my shell after that and hidden, but now I just keep going, knowing another chance will come.
‘If you go into your shell it’s worse for the team and for the fans. If you miss an easy one, you have to stand up, take the abuse and keep going.’
Bale was in the right place at the right time to nod in as Angel di Maria's shot deflected off Thibaut Courtois
The Welshman sparked uproarious scenes as his header turned the final in Real's favour
That next chance did come and his brilliant far-post header settled the final, Real eventually beating Atletico 4-1. The two teams meet again in Milan.
Abuse at Madrid is only ever a few bad games away, no matter who you are. Bale’s coach Zinedine Zidane knows that as well as anyone having been whistled at himself back in a difficult first season as a big-money signing.
Bale’s toughest time came in season two when defences learned not to give him the space that Bartra and Barcelona had allowed. He can now stand back from that second campaign and analyse it with an impressive maturity.
‘When you are good at something, people try to stop you doing it so you need to find another way.
‘In the Premier League it is end to end but here teams come to the Bernabeu and they sit. And you have to learn a different style of play. The first season, no one really knew fully what I was about so I was able to do the same thing I had done in the Premier League.
‘In the second season they knew what I was about and they tried to nullify me. But I am so happy that season happened because I learnt a lot about my game and about the Spanish way of playing: keeping the ball and moving more intelligently.
‘It’s because of that bad season, I think, that I have had such a good season this time. I have improved as a footballer. I feel there is more variety in my game now.
‘And if Atletico play defensively, I am much more comfortable with that.’
Bale believed he had scored in the semi-final against Man City, but the goal was given as a Fernando OG
Bale and midfield shield Casemiro will be key to Real's fortunes against their Madrid rivals
As so-called ‘bad’ seasons go he still scored 17 goals and provided 12 assists last year, but he knew he had more to give and that only he could find a way to maximise his output.
Redknapp changed his position at Spurs and that helped. Carlo Ancelotti, with Cristiano Ronaldo to accommodate, was perhaps less receptive, so it had to come from the player himself.
‘For me it wasn’t the manager at all this time,’ he says.
‘It felt like something that came from me. You watch games back and think: “I don’t need to run with the ball here; I need to play more one-twos there.” I have taken things on board and as a consequence become a more complete player.’
Redknapp to Zidane, via Andre Villas Boas, Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez — it has been some journey as far as coaches go.
There must be a world of difference between Harry and Zidane surely? ‘In the way they both want you to go out and express yourself they are very similar,’ says Bale.
‘I was speaking to Luka Modric about this and I remember at Tottenham, Harry used to just say to us: “Get the ball to me, Luka, Rafa van der Vaart, Aaron and just go at teams, enjoy ourselves and attack”. It’s similar here. We like to attack. Zidane likes us to roam, to have freedom and that gives confidence to players.’
Bale credits Harry Redknapp with instilling an attacking, exciting philosophy to his players at Spurs
Bale practises his dead-ball skills under the watchful gaze of Zinedine Zidane ahead of the final
Bale, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have scored 99 goals this season.
The presence of Casemiro in defensive midfield has given the side much-needed balance. ‘He has been our Makelele,’ says Bale. ‘We know that behind us he is going to fill every hole and tackle everything that moves, even if it’s the referee. He has been great.’
For all that Bale has matured as a player, his pace and power are still what really terrifies rivals. And he says he has never really had to work at that side of his game.
First came the speed; then the size. ‘I never do any gym work. I never do any weights. I do a lot of core exercises but I have just naturally filled out,’ he says squeezing his shoulders together to imitate how slightly he was built when he made his debut for Wales aged 16, ten years ago.
Last pre-season he looked as if he’d been doing Iron Man training.
‘I honestly did nothing in the summer,’ he says. ‘I remember a friend showing me the photos and saying: “Just play on it. Say you’ve been in the gym. It sounds good”. I was like: “Yeah, but it’s lying and I’ll be found out”.’
And the speed is natural, too. He was an 11-second 100-metre sprinter at the age of 14. What time would he clock now?
‘I have actually not timed myself since I left school and I don’t really want to in case I pull a hamstring or something,’ he laughs. ‘I can just imagine the conversation: “How fast can you run the 100m? I don’t know, I pulled my hamstring doing it”.’
'A friend showed me this picture, but I don’t do any gym work – I just filled out naturally,' says Bale
The young Bale looks to attack during a pre-season game after signing for Spurs in 2007
BRITS WHO WON MORE THAN ONE EUROPEAN CUP
Should Gareth Bale and Real Madrid be victorious in the Champions League final, the Welshman will be the 36th British player to win it more than once.
4: PHIL NEAL (Eng/Liverpool)
3: JIMMY CASE (Eng/L’pool), RAY CLEMENCE (Eng/L’pool), KENNY DALGLISH (Sco/L’pool), ALAN HANSEN (Sco/L’pool), DAVID JOHNSON (Eng/L’pool), RAY KENNEDY (Eng/L’pool), TERRY McDERMOTT (Eng/L’pool), GRAEME SOUNESS (Sco/L’pool)
2: VIV ANDERSON (Eng/Forest), GARRY BIRTLES (Eng/Forest), IAN BOWYER (Eng/Forest), WES BROWN (Eng/Man Utd), KENNY BURNS (Sco/Forest), IAN CALLAGHAN (Eng/L’pool), FRANK CLARK (Eng/Forest), DAVID FAIRCLOUGH (Eng/L’pool), RYAN GIGGS (Wal/Man Utd), OWEN HARGREAVES (Eng/Bayern Munich, Man Utd), EMLYN HUGHES (Eng/L’pool), COLIN IRWIN (Eng/L’pool), JOEY JONES (Wal/L’pool), ALAN KENNEDY (Eng/L’pool), SAMMY LEE (Eng/L’pool), LARRY LLOYD (Eng/Forest), JOHN McGOVERN (Sco/Forest), STEVE McMANAMAN (Eng/Real Madrid), GARY NEVILLE (Eng/Man Utd), STEVE OGRIZOVIC (Eng/L'pool), MARTIN O’NEILL (N Ire/Forest), JIMMY RIMMER (Eng/A Villa, Man Utd), JOHN ROBERTSON (Sco/Forest), PAUL SCHOLES (Eng/Man Utd), PETER SHILTON (Eng/Forest), PHIL THOMPSON (Eng/L’pool)
There is some truth in the jest. His goals per games record of 19 in 21 starts this season is as impressive as the number of games played is disappointing.
‘I would be just hitting my peak and then something would happen. We can’t quite put our finger on why it happens.
‘There is no underlying reason. It is frustrating but you have to do your rehab properly and come back stronger.’
The main thing is that he’s fit and ready for the most important game of the season. And ready, hopefully, for another long night.
‘I would always struggle to sleep after evening games in England and here we play so many matches at night that sometimes I don’t get to bed until 4, 5, even 6am. You go from the noise and the adrenaline and it takes time to come down.
‘I usually try to get whoever is at my house to stay up with me. They don’t like it, but if my friends are over, we’ll stay up chatting and watching a bit of TV.’
Win the game tonight and staying awake will not be an issue, as he knows from Lisbon two years ago: ‘What feels like millions of people are waiting for you on the streets when you get back. It’s a crazy, crazy experience.’
He has a match ball from the Lisbon final and memories of champagne being sprayed everywhere as the trophy got passed around.
Pausing as if the scene is playing in his head, Bale says: ‘It was just this crazy feeling that you don’t get too often. Singing, chanting, happy, just enjoying ourselves.’ Winning it this time would send Wales into the Euros with a team member who is already a reigning European Champion.
‘That would be amazing,’ he says. It would be nice to go to the tournament with that sort of confidence.’
Bale and long-time cohort Modric pose with old big ears after Real completed La Decima in Lisbon
Bale grabbed a Welsh flag - and who knows what confidence he would take to France if Real win again
Confidence does not appear to be something he is short of at the moment. ‘He-Man’ Ronaldo is still around scoring goals, but alongside him Bale looks every inch like another Master of the Universe.
Is there a moment when he knows confidence is so high he can destroy any opponent?
‘Yes, definitely,’ he says. ‘There are certain games where you think: “this guy, I have got his number. I can go past him”. Any game I go into — if I am 100 per cent fit and confident, I feel that way.’
And the bad news for Atletico is that there will be fewer pre-final nerves for Bale this time.
‘I was a bit nervous before kick-off the last time,’ he admits. ‘But I feel more relaxed this time. You have had the experience so you know what to expect. Hopefully that can improve my performance.’
Real Madrid fans would settle for more of the same — a repeat of his last final or, even better, a repeat of that astonishing display the last time he was at the San Siro.
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