Much-criticised for his inconsistent form and long injury absences, Gareth Bale was for a change declared Real Madrid’s hero on Wednesday after saving a young side from an embarrassing Copa del Rey loss.
Real had a two goal advantage over third-tier Fuenlabrada entering the second leg, but a young side had fallen behind at home when the Welshman came off the bench.
“Bale prevents a disaster,” read Madrid sports daily Marca’s front page after Bale, in his first appearance for two months, helped tee up a double for Borja Mayoral in the final 27 minutes. Despite a late goal that earned the visitors a 2-2 draw, Real had done enough to win 4-2 on aggregate and seal a place in the last 16 of the Cup.
It has been a testing year for Bale, the world’s most expensive player when Real splashed out just over 100 million euros ($119 million) to bring him to Spain in 2013.
Bale has completed 90 minutes with Real just four times since injuring ankle ligaments against Sporting Lisbon in November 2016.
A series of calf problems followed, which meant he had to settle for a place on the bench on his homecoming to Cardiff for the Champions League final when Real thrashed Juventus 4-1 in June.
However, his ability to score and create has been missed in the early part of this season as Madrid have fallen eight points behind Barcelona in La Liga and are doomed to finish second to Bale’s old club Tottenham Hotspur in Champions League Group H.
“Really enjoyed being back out there, and even better to get through to the next round,” Bale tweeted after the match.
His presence was more necessary than Real boss Zinedine Zidane could have imagined when, with a 2-0 first leg lead as a cushion, he named an inexperienced side
However, Luis Milla put the visitors in front thanks to a blunder from Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas before Cata Diaz was inches away from bringing Fuenlabrada level in the tie with a header that struck the bar.
In desperate circumstances, fans at the Santiago Bernabeu rose to acclaim Bale as a returning hero when he made his entrance 28 minutes from time.
Virtually his first touch, a sumptuous cross with the outside of his left foot, gave Mayoral an easy task to settle Real’s nerves.
“Bale returned in style because with that cross I just needed to put my head on it,” said Mayoral.
Bale could have sealed the perfect return when he bore down on goal moments later. His effort was parried by Pol Freixanet, but Mayoral mopped up the rebound for his second of the night.
“People talk a lot about the fact he is injured, but he is a very important player for us,” said Zidane afterwards.
However, Real didn’t escape unharmed as Alvaro Portilla earned Fuenlabrada a deserved draw on the night late on.
“What should have been a cruise for Madrid…turned into a new start for Bale after a atrocious first-half,” concluded Marca.