Alberto Saiz Gareth Bale, left, celebrates with Xabi Alonso after scoring his team's second goal during the final of the Copa del Rey.
Last night’s Clásico proved that Gareth Bale is the real deal
The Welshman outshone fellow big-name summer signing Neymar, as Real Madrid won the Copa del Rey at the expense of rivals Barcelona.

DESPITE THE PRESENCE of countless phenomenally talented players in last night’s Copa del Rey final, there was only one star that people were focused on after the game: Gareth Bale.

“It was definitely his most important goal for Madrid,” Real boss Carlo Ancelotti said of Bale’s late winner, speaking afterwards to AFP. “It was the defining moment in the game.”

“It was incredible, I have never seen anything like it,” added Bale’s teammate Xabi Alonso. “It looked like the ball was going out, but he kept pushing and ran off the field to get it. It was amazing.”

The moment represented another dramatic turn in what has been a whirlwind few months both for Bale personally, and for Barca and Real in general.

Last October, Barcelona beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the first Clásico of the season to strike a seemingly significant psychological blow in the La Liga title race. And generally, these games are seen as being crucial in deciding who ultimately emerges as the domestic champions in any given season, owing to the usual lack of competition in the league elsewhere (granted, Atlético are an obvious anomaly this season).

Moreover, the Catalan side again triumphed last month away to Madrid in a thrilling 4-3 victory that seemingly reinvigorated their title bid. Yet since that moment, it seems as if almost everything that could go wrong has, as far as Barca are concerned. They’ve been knocked out of the Champions League, been beaten by lowly Granada, received a 14-month transfer ban that’s likely to have serious ramifications on an already somewhat depleted squad, and it’s been practically confirmed that embattled manager Gerardo Martino will leave the club at the end of the season.

For a side such as Barca who normally possess an embarrassment of riches and enjoy success after near-relentless success, this is as close to a crisis as they are likely to come.

And last night, the sense that their season was dramatically unravelling seemed more palpable than ever, as their hopes of silverware were left in tatters, having been contending for a historic treble just over a week ago.

The woe that characterised their 2-1 Copa del Rey final loss to Real Madrid was epitomised in the form of another hapless performance from their expensive summer acquisition Neymar, the young Brazilian striker who has so far failed to live up to his exorbitant €57million price tag.

It’s thus amazing to reflect on that aforementioned Clásico just six months ago. Neymar scored the opener and was generally deemed to have played quite well. Gareth Bale, by contrast, was conspicuously inept — his decision-making was poor and on the few occasions that he had a chance to make an impact, he either failed to trouble the goalkeeper with a wildly-struck shot, ran down a blind alley, or elected to shirk responsibility altogether and innocuously pass to a teammate. He was ultimately put out of his misery after just 61 minutes of the game in question, when Carlo Ancelotti replaced him with Karim Benzema.

Of course, Neymar was good but not great on that occasion, while Bale was still recovering from a long-term injury and an intensive summer of transfer speculation leading to a lack of training that meant he was ill-prepared for the new season. But overriding footballing narratives rarely take such complexities into account — hence, many people after the game suggested that Neymar was worth the €57million that Barca paid, while Real Madrid supposedly had an expensive flop on their hands.

Spain Soccer Champions League Andres Kudacki Andres Kudacki

(Neymar has had a somewhat disappointing first season at Barca by most accounts)

While quite possibly hurt by those eager to write him off prematurely, Bale has undoubtedly survived worse in his career. Despite actually playing relatively well in the early part of his Tottenham career, he was part of an embattled Spurs team that had serious problems elsewhere. This widespread lack of confidence in the side affected Bale to an extent, and coupled with long-term injury problems that also hampered his progress, the youngster was lazily branded a £5million flop by some media outlets and heavily linked with moves to clubs such as Birmingham and Nottingham Forest. Yet he illustrated his mental toughness by recovering from those early setbacks, and history has repeated itself to a degree in recent times, as the 24-year-old has increasingly flourished following a difficult start to life in La Liga.

So far this season, Bale has 20 goals and 16 assists in 35 appearances — a superior overall record to his incredible Tottenham form last year (24 goals and eight assists in 41 appearances), which earned him the transfer to Madrid in the first place.

Neymar, in comparison, has nine goals and eight assists in 25 La Liga appearances, while Bale has 14 goals and 12 assists in 22 domestic games for Real. Almost every way you look at it therefore, the Welsh star has eclipsed his counterpart, and this was particularly true of last night’s Copa del Rey final.

Quite simply, nothing went right for Neymar — if he found himself in a good position, the flag went up for offside, if he beat an opposition player, another was on hand to intercept possession. The Brazilian’s confidence consequently appeared to dwindle as the game progressed, whereas Bale started strongly and improved from there.

Even before his masterful late winner, Bale could not have been accused of playing on the periphery of the game as has been the case in the previous two Clásicos in which the Welshman’s been involved. He was a constant threat, going close on more than one occasion with powerfully struck attempts on goal, consistently making good decisions when in possession and even having a hand in Real’s first consummately executed counter-attacking opener.

There was no doubt that Bale was in the mood to punish Barca’s vulnerable-looking defence, while Neymar was scarcely noticeable for much of the game, save for the odd petty squabble with an opposition defender.

Then, on 85 minutes, Bale produced a goal befitting of a €100million player. He has scored plenty of similar and even superior efforts before, but never of such importance or on so big a stage. Around the halfway line, he casually stroked the ball past Marc Bartra before breaking into a stride worthy of an Olympic sprinter. He then illustrated the skill he possesses to complement his ferocious pace and power, cutting inside the trailing defender and showing some deft touches, before finishing coolly past José Pinto.

And as if the contrast between Bale’s joy and Neymar’s despair wasn’t stark enough as it was, the Barca striker missed a gilt-edged opportunity to equalise late on, hitting the post with the goal at his mercy, to sum up a wretched evening for the youngster.

Accordingly, before now, the only factor tarnishing an otherwise excellent first La Liga season for Bale was an ostensible inability to make a considerable impact when Real needed him most. Granted, he scored in the 3-0 Champions League quarter-final first-leg win against Dortmund, but he performed with a similar lack of conviction to that demonstrated by the rest of the team, as they were defeated 2-0 in the second leg and marginally made it through to the next round thanks to a narrow aggregate victory. In addition, coupled with his no-shows in previous Clásicos, he was equally underwhelming in both of Real’s league encounters with Atlético.

However, last night, Bale finally proved he is the real deal with a highly mature, near-faultless and most importantly of all, match-winning performance. Neymar, in contrast, is still just a 22-year-old with enormous potential. And therein, perhaps, lies the difference between what €57million and €100million will get you in football nowadays.

h/t @FootballVines

Great news Liverpool fans, Man City were held to a draw by Sunderland tonight>

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