The Gareth Bale Saga, what? With its assorted triumphs and disasters it’s already been a fairly exhausting ride, which seems to have much about it of the seven stages of grief, with each passing game swinging us wildly between hope and despair. For those struggling to keep up, yesterday’s input ranked amongst the more positive variety, and accordingly wild and fanciful expectations have shot through the roof and off into the horizon.
It’s probably best to get the caveats out of the way early. Wolfsberg, or Wolfsberger, or Pellets, or whatever the hell they were called were pretty game going forward, but seemed only to tick the boxes marked ‘Defence’ because they absolutely had to under UEFA regulations, and consequently offered little in the way of resistance once our heroes began motoring.
This was best summed up by the comedy villain sent sliding into a different postcode by Bale immediately preceding his goal. The chap had much about him of ‘Henchman Number 3’ in one of the old Bond films, his purpose seeming solely to appear on screen in order to wave some ineffectual limbs before being obligingly hurled aside by our hero.
There was much to admire about the artistic direction of that particular scene. That combination of Bale’s speed on the run, balance on the turn and then vicious whip on the shot lent itself to some pretty dreamy aesthetics, the sort of thing that could not have looked better if it had been the product of hours of choreography.
But as well as the splendid entertainment of the goal itself, the fact that this was a glimpse of Peak Bale, for the first time since his return, was what really got the masses chattering.
As has been pretty well documented, the chap has underwhelmed in recent months. No need to dwell on the unfortunate particulars, but suffice to say his most significant contributions have been a couple of headers delivered with feet planted pretty solidly on terra firma, as if to indicate his reluctance to exert himself any more than is absolutely necessary.
If one squinted, and added a pretty generous narrative, one could just about discern the occasional glimpse of a man of talent, but in truth these moments were no more spectacular than any of those provided occasionally by the least celebrated squad members. Even Moussa Sissoko or Steven Bergwijn occasionally sidesteps an opponent; to laud Bale for doing likewise once every few games was straw-clutching at its finest.
So to see the chap raise himself to the heights that are the preserve of only a fairly elite group of players certainly got the heart fluttering. Sissoko or Bergwijn do not and cannot and never will score a goal like Bale’s last night. And I don’t mind admitting that I had resigned myself to never seeing such output again from the man himself.
But if, for whatever reason – be it fitness, or confidence, or simply a whim-based shrug of the shoulders in which the young folk seem to delight – Bale has rediscovered something of that alchemist’s touch of yore, suddenly we might have a potent third appendage to the Kane-Sonny axis.
Sunny optimism clearly comes in twos, because just as we all began happily speculating about the longer-term meaning of Bale’s goal and assist (not sure he contributed an awful lot else, mind, but beggars and choosers and all that) we were treated to a few party tricks from young D. Alli Esq., which suggested that here was a man who considered his affairs to be in order.
Dele, as is well known, loves a nutmeg, and I suppose we should guard against getting too carried away on the basis of one such specimen, delicious in its execution though it was.
But for the purposes of a duly diligent reality check it is probably worth nothing that there was a decent stack of other impressive output from the man.
In possession, a lot of the old swagger had returned. This can actually tend to be a source of considerable frustration, as he often seems to derive ideas above his station and refuse to part with the ball as a result, holding onto it far too long and sapping momentum from our attacks. Yesterday, however, the need for urgency seemed impressed upon him, and he generally combined his trademark love of the elaborate with a good appreciation of the need to chivvy things along.
Moreover, off the ball he seemed perfectly happy to make a generous contribution to the collective act of The High Press. Again, worth noting that these were obliging opponents, but it’s the only fare Dele gets these days, so he may as well make the most of it.
With Ndombele now seemingly entrusted to the deeper-lying role, and Lo Celso still poorly, opportunity potentially knocks for Dele in the Number 10 spot, and a couple more eye-catching flourishes in the Europa would do him no harm.
3. Vincius: Offering Value of Sorts
The curious egg that is Carlos Vinicius was given his traditional airing yesterday, and duly continued to leave us all a little undecided as to whether it was best to castigate or sympathise with him.
The answer, of course, lies in between the two extremes. Passing judgement with moderation is something of a forgotten art in these days of non-stop and ubiquitous news coverage, but there might be value in taking this approach with Vinicius and simply appreciating both what he offers and his limitations.
In the Credit column, his mere existence allows us such luxuries as the complete resting of Harry Kane. I distinctly remember tearing out great big clumps of hair in midweek Cup matches of years gone by, at the fact that we were forced to deploy Kane in pretty meaningless matches, simply because we had nobody else in the squad worthy of the description “Striker”. Kane, of course, never dissented – quite the opposite in fact, the eyes of the honest fellow tended to light up when he realised easy goals were to be had – but that’s not the point. Wheel him out for every game and he will eventually break; so having a Vinicius in the squad affords him and Sonny some respite and saved energies for tougher tests.
On top of which, while Vinicius does have his limitations as an all-round centre-forward, it was good to see him show something of the Lineker about him yesterday in poaching his goal. It’s something of a dying art, but one for which AANP reserves a special place in the affections.
That snaffle aside, Vinicius did not offer a great deal, which seems to point to a couple of causal factors. On the one hand he has plenty of room for improvement. He might have been more alert to pounce when Bale had a shot parried, and he might have used the ball more wisely when it did come his way.
But on t’other hand, this is not the sort of creature who will drop deep a la Kane, or spend his afternoons working the channels. Vinicius comes across as the type who would like a few testing balls to whirl around the penalty area, either along the ground or otherwise, and if his chums are not donating to the cause it leaves him pretty unemployed for sizeable chunks.
I rather reluctantly offer a mention to Monsieur Lloris, primarily because justice demands as much.
In recent games he has dropped such howlers that one wondered if he were doing so deliberately, but more salutary habits were on display yesterday, with the one-handed first half save, from close range, a particular highlight.
So, having jostled to the front of the queue to pelt the chap with rotten fruit over the last couple of games, the AANP Code of Honour has seen to it that I now similarly commend him for his efforts yesterday.
Elsewhere, the combination of Dier’s poor pass and Sissoko’s poor control contributed to another pretty careless penalty, but in general this was a fair result, and given our recent struggles, against both capable and weaker opponents, it was pretty welcome stuff.