The Welshman managed to do after 13 games what it took Cristiano Ronaldo 62 to achieve – and it was perfect
The giant scoreboards at either end of the Bernabéu showed 89 minutes. There was just time for one last charge and Gareth Bale led it. "I think as soon as I scored the second I was trying to get the third: I was trying my hardest to get into positions," he grinned. He had scored two goals against Valladolid, the second after 64 minutes, but the ball had not dropped for him again since. A couple of times there was a hint of frustration as team-mates passed up the opportunity to play him in.
This time, Bale bombed through from deep, space opening up before him. He played the ball wide to Marcelo and the return ball was perfect. "On a plate," Bale said. From four yards he scored, left-footed. That fact turned out to be significant: he'd already got one with a header and another with his right foot, meaning that he had completed the "perfect hat-trick". It had taken him 13 games to get one. The Spanish football statistician "Mister Chip" pointed out that Cristiano Ronaldo had taken 62 games to get one. Leo Messi never has.
Bale also became only the second British player ever to score a hat-trick in La Liga. The first had been Gary Lineker, for Barcelona against Real Madrid in January 1987. Saturday was Lineker's birthday. "Festival Lineker" ran one headline back then. Another declared that, like a triumphant bullfighter, Lineker had "cut off three ears". There was a touch of the Lineker about Bale's goals too, according to the editor of the sports daily AS. "Bale was where you have to be to pick up a rebound of a pass from a team-mate."
On Sunday morning, more than a quarter of a century after Lineker's festival, Madrid's two main sports newspapers took inspiration from Bale's nationality. AS declared him the "Principe de Gales", the Prince of Wales. Marca went one better and called him the Principe de Goles, the Prince of Goals. Other headlines declared him "Commander Bale": in the absence of Ronaldo, he had taken on the responsibility, earning his stripes. Even if Marcelo did insist "you can't compare Bale to Ronaldo".
Bale left the stadium with the match ball in a white paper bag; on Sunday morning he posted a picture of it, signed by his team-mates, on his Instagram account. It was not just the goal, either. Bale also provided a superb diagonal assist for Karim Benzema to score. "It's important to give passes, too," the Welshman said. "That's part of my job on the wing."
"Bale's adaptation period is over," the coach Carlo Ancelotti said. If his start was slow due to injury, his home debut put on hold as he pulled out during the warm-up against Getafe, he has made up for that little bit of lost time. "I feel my fitness is there now," Bale said. "I have been working very hard to get my fitness up quickly and now it is showing on the pitch."
Defeat in the clásico, where Bale played much of the game as a kind of centre-forward and was not yet fully fit, has been followed by five successive wins in the league. Big wins, too: 7-3, 3-2, 5-1, 5-0 and now 4-0. Bale also scored against Juventus in Turin in the Champions League and thumped in a 30-yard free-kick against Galatasaray in midweek that travelled like a plane through turbulence.
In the last six games, Bale has scored eight and provided six assists. In total, he has nine goals and six assists in all competitions. On average he is directly involved in a goal every 56 minutes.
"He's not Cristiano," cheered AS's excitable Madrid-supporting columnist Tomas Roncero, "but he is Thor's hammer". The inevitable play on words was everywhere, too: Bale means "worth it" in Spanish and he is looking increasingly worth it, even £86m. There is an expectation that he will get better too. As he settles, he may become more dominant. For now, he has a key advantage: the physical difference between Bale and the Valladolid defenders was startling on Saturday night.
Antonio Romero from Cadena Ser radio wrote: "While he adapts to another league, another country and greater demands, he is scoring loads of goals. His presence is still intermittent but his ability to score is greater than anyone anticipated. Playing on the opposite wing, it's harder for him to provide good crosses but he is compensating for that with intelligence in reading the game, great physical capacity and goals."
"He does not 'play', because orchestral football is not his thing," ran Pepe Samano's match report in El Pais. "But he scores goals and that's no small matter. He assists too. He is an interesting case. He does not shine minute by minute but he is like an ant who is leaving a mark, step by step. He did so again against Valladolid, who were demolished by the British player who is paving the way with goals. This game was Bale, Bale and more Bale."
"With every passing game, Bale looks better and better," said Real Madrid's institutional director, Emilio Butragueño.