La Liga: Bale scores, but Ronaldo still rules

Both men stood over a free-kick, outside the box, slightly to the left. This was their territory.

Even though the strike had been on the run, Gareth Bale had scored from a similar position against West Ham last season. He owned this space in a Tottenham jersey. But he's no longer the Lone Ranger.

At Real Madrid, he plays Tonto to Cristiano Ronaldo. There was only going to be one shooter. With his legs spread in characteristically belligerent fashion, Ronaldo took aim, his pistol cocked. There might be a new sheriff in town, but the Portuguese still holds the badge.

In the 17th minute, Ronaldo's set-piece flew high and wide against Villarreal, but the point had been made. Bale might have scored on his debut in the 2-2 draw on Sunday morning (Singapore time), but Ronaldo still rules.

The crown rests easily on the gelled head of the Portuguese puppeteer. If Bale wants anything close to the omnipotence he craved - and earned - at White Hart Lane, he's going to have to take it. Ronaldo gives away nothing.

He even scored in the second half, after an exhausted Bale was substituted, just to underline the point he made so decisively at the free-kick. The new boy has scored one goal in one game. Ronaldo has 203 in 203.

Ronaldo looked across at the bench after matching Bale's first-half effort and one could practically hear him saying: "Impressive, most impressive, but you are not a Jedi yet."

Their evolving relationship promises to be one of the most intriguing in modern football.

Ronaldo needs Bale, even if he may not necessarily want him. In a recent interview, Rio Ferdinand said he has never come across a teenager more determined - and more serious - in his quest to become the world's greatest player than Ronaldo at Manchester United.

Sundance Kid

It's bad enough that Ronaldo has spent the last five years dealing with the impudent imp from Barcelona - Lionel Messi playing Roger Federer to his physically superior Rafa Nadal - now he's got to contend with the Sundance Kid in his own camp.

Bale has already stolen the world's most-expensive player tag. Ronaldo will not be keen to concede anything else.

But the Welshman can lead his teammate towards what Ronaldo believes is his inevitable destiny of Champions League glory at Real Madrid. With the Portuguese winger on the left and Bale on the right, their potential promises to cut inside and take the European Cup.

Ronaldo remains the boss, but the oneman routine is exhausting. A double act increases productivity but halves the workload. Their relationship could be shared, but unequal.

Ronaldo will still call the shots. He can't help himself. He knows no other way. Against Villarreal, Bale was a passenger for most of the hour he spent on the pitch. He wasn't fit enough to start for Wales, so one can only speculate if corporate pressure was applied to Ancelotti to pencil in the winger's name.

He was a shadow of his usual self; his rustiness all too apparent. He floated a reasonable cross to Ronaldo in the 10th minute and was rewarded with a thumbsup from the gaffer (Ronaldo, not Ancelotti).

He delivered an uncharacteristically poor ball to Ronaldo - overlong, too wide and too high - and received sympathetic applause from his teammate.

For much of the contest, Real sub-consciously deferred to their Madrid monarch. Whenever the visitors found themselves in possession, the play gravitated towards the left. Ronaldo's side. They played to their master's voice. Bale was isolated. When the two men switched flanks, the move was orchestrated by Ronaldo.

The new boy danced to a Portuguese tune. The balance of power was never in doubt. But the switch led to Bale scoring on his debut, ghosting in from the left side of the penalty box in the 39th minute to slide in Daniel Carvajal's low cross. His joy was impossible to contain; his hand-shaped heart sincere. The kid from Cardiff who asked for Real Madrid shirts for Christmas was living a childhood dream.

For a moment, fantasy transcended reality. This was boy's own stuff. Bale was swarmed by teammates. He hugged them all gratefully. When the time came to acknowledge Ronaldo, an audience with the king, Bale sheepishly offered a high-five like a shy boy greeting his kindergarten teacher.

Ronaldo reciprocated with a regal bear hug. What an enthralling game of thrones this promises to be. A final, lung-busting run in the 60th minute exemplified Bale's eagerness to impress, but betrayed his lack of fitness. He was substituted. The first, toughest hurdle had been cleared.

Ancellotti now has more pressing issues to address. Karim Benzama looked disinterested throughout, fluctuating between anonymous and irritating.

Pepe and Sergio Ramos appeared to have been introduced to each other in the pre-match warm-up.

Only the reflexes of Diego Lopez denied Villarreal - and Man-of-the-Match Cani - the victory they deserved.

But the debut is done and Bale is already a goal to the good. Time will allow him to find his form and work on a fairer delegation of duties with Ronaldo.

Fitness should come quickly. Being allowed to take some free-kicks might take a little longer.


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