Gareth Bale missed a chance to announce himself as Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid successor after struggling to fill the void left by the Portuguese superstar in the Champions League semi-final stalemate at Manchester City.
Speaking on the eve of the first leg at Etihad Stadium, Bale said he had no interest in seeing himself as a leading star who Madrid turn towards for inspiration.
A little more than an hour before kick-off, he had no choice in the matter.
Rumours whipping around pre-match soon became established as facts. Cristiano Ronaldo was not included in the Madrid squad, handing City a considerable lift.
Ronaldo missed Saturday’s 3-2 win over Rayo Vallecano and, in his absence, head coach Zinedine Zidane expected the man with an astonishing 16 goals in 10 Champions League outings to lead his attack in Manchester. It proved a forlorn hope, as the visitors were held to a 0-0 draw.
Zidane was undoubtedly boosted to have Bale operating in such prime form.
In between fitness woes of his own, the Wales international has dazzled this season – gritting his teeth to overcome, in some style, the shameful treatment meted out by the Santiago Bernabeu boo-boys.
Bale’s eighth headed goal of the season – no player in Europe’s five major leagues has more – began a Madrid comeback from 2-0 down at Rayo that his powerhouse winner completed.
Asked if those heroics were particularly significant given Ronaldo’s absence – Bale had again denied rumours of a personality clash with the three-time Ballon d’Or winner – he shrugged in response.
“Whenever I step on the pitch I try and do the best I can,” Bale said.
“We all want to work together as a team. We attack together and defend together.”
Individually or collectively, Real Madrid carried out neither facet with much distinction during a first half in east Manchester that favoured the artisans over the artists.
City pressed relentlessly, with Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho
their irrepressible fulcrum.
Madrid were panicked at times – centre-backs Pepe and Sergio Ramos lunging into rash fouls as Luka Modric strained in vain for his usual mastery of midfield and Toni Kroos grasped unconvincingly for a return to form.
Playing on an English ground for the first time since leaving Tottenham in 2013, it was honours even in Bale’s early exchanges with City left-back Gael Clichy.
A pair of teasing balls into the box were tidied up before City defender Nicolas Otamendi brought the 26-year-old to earth with one of those slide tackles carried out in the manner of a runaway freight train.
Modric’s radar was awry when Bale looked to charge on to a 33rd-minute thoughball, while tussles with Otamendi became an intriguing sub-plot for Madrid’s most mobile attacker.
The City faithful howled with derision when he went down lightly under an early second-half challenge from his Argentinian foe, by which point Karim Benzema’s tenuous grasp on his own fitness had given out.
Now accompanied by the unheralded Lucas Vazquez and Jese in attack, Bale could not be the team player; he had to be the Galactico.
A sloppy 65th minute pass beyond Marcelo and out for a throw-in was greeted in the pantomime style by the Eastlands crowd. Not what the doctor ordered – if indeed he had time to order anything amid these high-profile Madrid injuries.
Jese hit the bar from a Dani Carvajal cross in the 71st minute before Otamendi slammed the door shut on Bale’s latest drive forward.
He had more luck with Kompany – deceiving the home captain with beautiful stepover before cutting back on to his left foot and curling beyond the far post.
City were creaking towards full-time, with goalkeeper Joe Hart in his familiar role of European hero.
Unfortunately for Bale, as he crashed a late free-kick into the wall, he could not live up to his 11th-hour casting as talisman. That remains the part Ronaldo plays better than anyone for the 10-time European champions and he may well do so once again in the second leg on May 4.