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Gareth Bale rising more and more to occasion with Madrid moments

Photo: Angel Martinez/Real Madrid/Getty Images

Gareth Bale lets out a celebratory shout after his highlight-reel goal lifts Real Madrid to the Copa del Rey title.

It won't help Marc Bartra of course, but Gareth Bale had done it before; five weeks earlier, in fact, and from the other side of the pitch.

Bale was wearing the red of Wales when he picked up the ball inside in his own half, knocked it past Iceland center back Solvi Geir Ottesen and ran off the pitch to out-sprint his opponent, kept possession, cut inside the back-pedaling left back, Ari Freyr Skulason, before rounding off his own move with a startling decisive finish.

It was a friendly last month, Wales was 2-1 up at the time and Bale was substituted off straight after his moment of genius.

It was not the winning goal in a cup final, with a trophy at stake against a chief rival with the world watching, though. That came last Wednesday, with 85 minutes on the clock, when Bale outpaced Barcelona center back Bartra near the touchline at the midfield line and, within six touches, had poked the ball past Barcelona goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto to cap an astonishing individual moment in the biggest game of his career.

"Gareth Bolt" declared Spanish newspaper AS in a headline, with Marca going one better and actually speaking to Usain Bolt, the world's fastest man, about the goal.

"He's the fastest player in the world at the moment," Bolt said. "That was a goal any sprinter in the world would like to score one day."

Meanwhile in Iceland, Skulason, the left back who was given the run-around by Bale not so long ago, could sympathize.

"You can see why he's one of the most valuable players in the world," he told local paper Futboli. "In the second half against us, it was a one-man show -- he just stayed out on the wing and waited for the ball. He showed what he's capable of, and you could say he toyed with me."

His words spark memories of Jan Olsson, the former Sweden fullback who was the first victim of the Cruyff turn, at the 1974 World Cup. He later called that moment "the proudest moment of my career."

AS columnist Alfredo Relano seized on the word "moment" and claimed that Bale needed more consistency in his game. For all his goals (20) and assists (15) in what has been an impressive and improving first season in Madrid, the knock on him had been his failure to do it in the big games: no goals in the four league games against Atletico Madrid or Barcelona -- although his Champions League quarterfinal first leg strike against Borussia Dortmund did come after two solo efforts in the previous round against Schalke.

Taking into account that Bale turned up in Madrid with a back injury, missed preseason training, is still learning the language and has spent most of his time on the pitch playing out of position on the right wing -- though against Barcelona, with Ronaldo injured, he was back on the left -- you would have to call his first season a success.

Relano was not so sure: "He saves his season with goals," he wrote. "He scores a lot, because he has a stunning left foot, he sees the goal well but not so much an unmarked teammate. He is a player of moments - for now."

But what is this game about, if not moments? Bale cannot run at 34 kilometers per hour, as he did against Bartra, for 90 minutes; so he waits for his moment and pounces.

The difference is that in his last season at Tottenham Hotspur, those moments were more frequent, but that was because he was its only go-to man. As the clock ticked down, his teammates would feed him the ball whenever they could knowing he was the guy to make the difference. The result: wins over Newcastle (2-1, Bale winner on 78 minutes), Lyon (2-1, Bale 90), West Ham (3-2, Bale 90), Manchester City (3-1, Bale 82), Southampton (1-0, Bale 86), and Sunderland (1-0, Bale 90). In Madrid, Ronaldo has that status, but that might just start to change now.

The 60 seconds after Bale's goal encapsulated another part of the Clasico narrative (that was after the celebration, which, this alternative-angle video shows, the emotion of the moment almost gets to the Welshman as he shares an extended hug with Luka Modric, his former teammate at Spurs and a big support to him in Spain.)

Neymar hit the post when 1-on-1 with Iker Casillas and while his debut season has gone from decent to scandalous (as the details of his transfer emerged, it lead to Sandro Rosell's departure as Barcelona president) to disappointing, Bale's has had the steadier upwards trajectory.

Both cost around €100 million, but right now Real Madrid is happier with its investment (and let's not even ask Arsenal fans, crowing in August that the €50 million spent on Mesut Ozil was the bargain of the summer).

This week, Bale's challenge is the Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich, reigning European champion and with Pep Guardiola in charge, already a record-breaking title-winner in Germany. Two years ago, these teams met at the same stage and Bayern won on penalties. Back then, though, Real Madrid did not have Bale.

The next time he scores a goal with a run from his own half again, he might have to ask Usain if he can trademark it as the "Gareth Bolt." It only takes a moment, and in football, that's enough.

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