They love their Welshmen in Turin, where John Charles scored 93 goals in 155 matches for the Old Lady. They will love them even more now after Gareth Bale’s insipid performance for Real Madrid against their Juventus hosts in Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final.
Alas poor Gareth, they continue to wave their white hankies at him. If it is not too absurd to sympathise with a £85 million superstar whose biggest worry is having the hubcaps of his Bentley scuffed by the boots of furious Madridistas, then it is indeed possible to feel some tinges of pity for Bale. The Welsh winger is once again feeling the heat at Real Madrid – or not as the case may be.
Chief among the pieces of evidence produced in the case for the prosecution is a heat map tracking Bale’s exertions inside the Juventus stadium. Admittedly, there are fewer blotches than on a supermodel’s chin.
Players of Charles’ era did not have to put up with such technological wizardry plotting in forensic detail how active, or in Bale’s case, inactive individuals have been. Even greats such as Charles were allowed to have off-days.
Then there are these infernal Opta Stats, something else used to damn Bale. Just 27 touches in the 86 minutes he was on the pitch (although perhaps saying everything about how such statistics should be treated with caution, some sources quote Bale as having 32 touches). Either way, the number is still fewer than both goalkeepers managed.
Clearly, there is nowhere to hide in the modern game. Given that he must be aware every move is being collated, it would be strange if Bale intentionally sought to remain on the fringes of things, something Roy Keane, one of the ITV pundits at the game, accused him of doing in typically forthright manner. He charged Bale with the crime of disappearing when the going got tough. Most woundingly of all, Keane told viewers that Real Madrid had effectively gone into such a testing examination with ten men from the start.
Keane is actually one of the few qualified to make such criticisms. Had heat maps been the thing in the late 1990s, Keane’s would have looked like one giant orange blob after his box-to-box heroics in the same city at the same stage of the same tournament.
Keane’s performance in Manchester United’s 2-2 draw with Juventus in 1999 is still held up as one of the bravest in modern times. It was supplied with even greater legendary status because of the personal cost involved.
Despite Keane knowing the booking he collected that night meant he could play no part in the final, he was the pivotal figure in United’s comeback from 2-0 down to win 3-2.
The vehement criticism from fans and also Spanish journalists – one newspaper marked Bale down as a zero in their ratings – must be harder to accept, however. After all, Bale did as much any anyone – yes, even Ronaldo – to help Real lift the European Cup last season.
Was it also not just a year ago last month when he scored the solo wonder winner to secure the Copa del Rey against Barcelona?
He has scored 17 goals already this season, despite injury. Tuesday night’s 2-1 defeat to Juve was Bale’s first start in five games. He was clearly still rusty. Even then, one of his 27 – or was it 32? – touches nearly led to a goal. Ronaldo just failed to connect with the Welshman’s clever dinked cross from the right. And yet it was the Portuguese who had the hissy fit, predictably enough. Ronaldo was furious no-one had made a run in behind him. He had a point. Ronaldo was also the player in the right spot at the right time to give Real something to build on in the second leg. It was his 54th goal of another remarkable season. Ronaldo’s ever-growing legend also means Bale is struggling to do anything else but defer to his strutting, cantankerous team-mate.
Yet Bale could still be part of the first team to win back-to-back European Cups since 1990, when AC Milan retained the trophy. Making history certainly beats making blotches on a map.