Carlo Ancelotti said that Gareth Bale still needs to learn the movements necessary to fit into the Real Madrid team after the forward's first visit to the Camp Nou ended in defeat. Meanwhile, the Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fábregas has backed Bale to prove that he is a great player but warned that he will not get the space he was used to in the Premier League.
Against Barcelona on Saturday evening, Bale made only his second start since joining Madrid for a world record £86m transfer fee. But if he got the first touch of the 226th Clásico, taking the kick-off with Angel Di María, he watched the last half an hour from the second row of the Camp Nou bench.
There was satisfaction at the fact that he had lasted an hour and Ancelotti described Bale's performance as "not bad", adding "physically, he was fine". Bale had been unable to have a lasting impact on the game and that sense of disappointment was enhanced by the fact that it was the summer's other star signing, Barcelona's Brazilian forward Neymar, who proved decisive. The clásico had been partly billed as Bale versus Neymar and there was a clear winner.
The former Tottenham attacker, who did not have a proper pre-season before finally making the switch on the penultimate day of the transfer window, is yet to play a full 90 minutes and had made only three league appearances, racking up a total of 125 minutes, plus 49 minutes in the Champions League. Ancelotti surprised everyone by opting to start with a three-man forward line made up of Bale, Di María and Cristiano Ronaldo.
For the opening 20 minutes or so, Bale found himself in an unfamiliar centre forward position, although he then shifted to the right. Barcelona took control of the game and although Bale produced the only two shots in the opening exchanges, both of which flew a long way over, he did not look comfortable. Only occasionally was he able to combine effectively with his team-mates.
He was booked just before half-time for a high foot on Gerard Piqué and by the time he was withdrawn on the hour, he had lost possession eight times, recovering possession twice; he had taken two shots, unsuccessfully attempted one dribble and committed two fouls. He had not been fouled at all. He had completed 15 of 25 passes. Madrid's improvement came later in the game, by which time he had been removed.
"He needs to look for more combinations. He needs to improve his movement and look for spaces," Ancelotti said. "It was for him that we started to change positions. We tried to put Sergio Busquets under pressure. After 20 minutes we changed him to play a bit wider to give him more space. Physically he was fine. He was not bad in the one hour he played."
The Catalan media, inevitably, disagreed and gloated about the result and the difference in performance of the two new signings. El Mundo Deportivo's headline declared: "Neymar eats Bale". The paper said his influence on the game was "nonexistent", describing him as a "hologram". Sport said he was "out of shape and out of space, light years away from Neymar". It added: "Gareth Bale still does not know what Carlo Ancelotti was trying to achieve putting him in the middle of the attack."
In Madrid, Marca claimed that he was still a long way from the "120% that the club's medical staff boasted about", adding: "He ran out of fuel in the 60th minute and they took him off: both the Welshman and his team were grateful [for that]." An editorial in the city's other sports newspaper, AS, suggested that he had been crowbarred into the team for political reasons and in a position that is not his own. "To express his talent he needs the ball," explained El País, "and he only got two within 40 of the goal … he wondered round the pitch perplexed."
Fábregas said: "You need to adapt. It is completely different to the Premier League. There is not as much space and when you get the ball there are far more opponents around you. He needs time. It is up to him if he comes through it.He has got a lot of pressure on him – €100m is a massive [fee]. But I think when a great player is a great player then he overcomes it and I'm sure he will."