For those in any doubt of quite how premature some quarters of the English press have been in their comparisons between Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, last night’s Champions League tie offered a pretty emphatic exhibition of the gulf in class.
While he might not have ended up being a match winner for Real Madrid, Ronaldo’s seemingly gravity-defying 30th minute header to equal the tie against Manchester United, was a game changer. And amongst his array of astounding athletic, footballing and goalscoring gifts, perhaps it is that unique ability to be able to change the course of a match at any given moment, which remains his most awe-inspiring attribute.
For the more level-headed amongst us, comparisons between Bale and Ronaldo have amounted to little more than a yardstick of how far Tottenham Hotspur’s prodigious Welsh talent has to go before he reaches such a level, rather than a realistic barometer of his ability.
Scoring four goals in three league games as Bale has done recently is all very well, but the road to knocking in 34 and counting for the season as Ronaldo has done, is a very long and arduous one indeed. Yet while it’s impossible to judge whether Bale will indeed ever reach those sort of unparalleled heights within the game, there is enough evidence to suggest he’s currently treading a path not too dissimilar to the one Ronaldo once took.
It may well be that Bale’s hunched stance over a free kick or his gallivanting surges of pace all evoke a very similar physical resemblance to the way Ronaldo used to tear through defences in this league. But in recent games, it’s been the ex-Southampton man’s growing ability to win games all by himself, in which the recent comparisons with the Portuguese superstar really reach their most complimentary.
The term ‘world-class’ has been bandied around relatively carelessly towards Bale’s performances in recent weeks. Much of how highly you rate Bale’s recent games in a Spurs shirt will depend on what you perceive to be a world-class footballer, but if Ronaldo is the bench-mark, then what sets him apart from the rest of Europe? The easy answer to that lies in the 183 goals he’s scored in 180 games and counting during his three-and-a-half years in Madrid.
But before Ronaldo (and Lionel Messi too, before any accusations of pro-Madrid bias sprout up) ushered in a ratio of one-goal-per-game as the going rate for peerless attacking talent, the Portuguese wasn’t scoring quite so many, yet was still safely labeled as a world-class talent.
At 23, the age Bale currently is now, Ronaldo was well on his way to scoring 31 league goals in a Premier League season – a total that the Welshman is going to fall short by quite some considerable distance. But the season before that, the Portuguese hit a stunning 17 league goals on the way to both Premier League glory and a PFA Players’ Player of the Year trophy. With 12 league games to go this season, Bale already has 13.
Gareth Bale still has time to reach that mark and if he does, he will be beggining to reflect the continuous ascent in improvement that the Portuguese one showed at a similar age. Trying to compare the pair’s respective development on simply goals alone would be doing the Real Madrid star a massive disservice, because even if a 23-year-old Bale matches a 22-year-old Ronaldo’s strike rate in the league, with only one assist, he sits someway behind the 14 goals that Ronaldo set up during the 2006/07 season.
But what Bale is doing that Ronaldo was at a similar age, is that he’s now starting to win games all by himself. It’s not an attribute that defines a world-class player, but it’s certainly a massive building block on the road to doing so.
Bale’s recent splurge of goals against Newcastle, West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City have almost single handedly kept Spurs in contention for a top four finish within recent days. They’re not a side that are capable of winning a Premier League or a Champions League title and in such respect, maybe it’s easier for Bale to stand out at White Hart Lane, than it was for Ronaldo to do so at Old Trafford.
Yet his recent penchant for taking his side by the scruff of the neck through blistering pace and powerful finishing doesn’t just evoke physical similarities with Ronaldo – they evoke memories of similar performances. Seeing Bale cut inside and work his magic at West Brom the other week isn’t going to seal a title like Ronaldo’s now infamous effort away to Fulham did in 2007. But it may well turn out to have had just as an important effect for his side and the more matches Bale wins for his side, the more that comparison will add up.
This isn’t to say that Gareth Bale is potentially capable of reaching the sort of level Cristiano Ronaldo has in the last two seasons. As most of English football witnessed last night, with every passing game the former United forward plays, his place amongst the pantheon of European greats looks more and more assured.
Whether or not Bale can reach that level, only time will tell. At this present moment in time, several galaxies separate the two players. But within the ruthless levels of determination, the development of a match winning mentality and a continuous drive for self-improvement, perhaps he isn’t as many light-years away from where Ronaldo once was five years ago as many may think.