Gareth Bale, one-man army

Gareth Bale celebrates Wales’ third goal against Russia during Euro Cup 2016. Photo: Pascal Guyot/AFP

as been seizing it with every sinew of his body”.

“He has previously likened the experience of playing for Wales to a kickabout with his mates and, in the way that he personally dominated the game and raised himself beyond all others, it sometimes did resemble what you might see on a park or school playing field,” Wilson writes.

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Compare these performances with Ronaldo, another player who is the face of his national side and easily their best player. The goalscoring machine struck 51 times for Real Madrid this season, but doesn’t have a single strike for Portugal in Euro 2016 so far, and has failed to score a single goal from 36 free-kick attempts at major tournaments. In comparison, Bale has two goals from three attempts.

Bale has shot better (80% accuracy to Ronaldo’s 40%), tackled better (an 8% success rate compared to Ronaldo’s zero attempts), beat defenders with stunning ease (81% take-on success to Ronaldo’s 33%) and even headed better (48% of headers won to Ronaldo’s 33%) than the three-time World Player of the Year. When it has come down to man against goalkeeper, Bale has struck with devastating effect. On the other hand, Ronaldo missed against Austria from the penalty spot.

There must be no doubt about Bale slowly swooping down on the Portuguese captain’s status as the most threatening one-man army in European football.

He’s also beating Ronaldo at the art of speaking.

A week ago, before facing England, Bale had said not a single player from Wayne Rooney’s side would make it into the Wales XI. Hours later, he scored a stunning free kick (in a sloppy 2-1 loss), making England goalkeeper Joe Hart flail his arms haplessly in mid-air before he ended on the turf, resembling an untidy pile of boots and gloves, as Bale wheeled away in celebration. So while the left-footer may not be learning how to shoot the ball from Ronaldo, he’s clearly learning how to rile his opponents and has picked up a thing or two about walking the talk. The only difference is that it doesn’t seem over-the-top cocky.

But the most damning verdict against Ronaldo is his inability to force those around him to raise their game. With him around, his team looks bogged down by the pressure of realizing their star man’s dream of winning an international tournament to seal his personal legacy. With Bale around, Liverpool’s oft-ridiculed Joe Allen looks as good as the legendary Andrea Pirlo and no, this is not about the facial hair. Ramsey, Sam Vokes and Neil Taylor all starred in the 3-0 demolition of Russia. And here’s some perspective: A report in The Guardian says that Taylor, one of the scorers against Russia, was last on target “for Wrexham against Grays in the Blue Square Bet Premier in front of 298 people in April 2010”.

There is a marked difference in personality as well. If Ronaldo shows outright disrespect to Iceland by calling them a team with a “small mentality”, Bale inspires. “I’d take playing rubbish every single game if it meant going as far as we can. It’s all about the team getting to the next round,” he said before the Russia game.

For most of the year, you’re watching them in tandem, ripping apart La Liga opponents and winning two Champions League titles in three years. Bale on the right, Ronaldo on the left, cutting in, dummying, shooting, celebrating in hugs and huddles of white kit against the backdrop of the Bernabéu. But release them as lone beasts in different settings, and the true colours show.

Ronaldo may be a sore loser whose arrogance helps him raise his game to still be considered one of the top two best players in the world. And Bale’s real test will come when the world expects from him the heroics that it does from Ronaldo. The gap, however, is closing. Bale is bombing down the left, gobbling up the ground with goals, passes and words. It’s energetic, but not erratic. It’s intense and infectious. It’s unreal but was always imaginable. And most of all, it’s with Wales.


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