Gareth Bale: Real Madrid star is 'better player' ahead of San Siro return

By Michael PearlmanBBC Wales Sport
Gareth Bale
Tottenham only registered three shots on target on the night of Gareth Bale's San Siro hat-trick
Champions League final: Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid
Venue: San Siro, Milan Date: 28 May Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen to BBC Radio 5 live commentary plus follow live text on the BBC Sport website and app
Watch: Gareth Bale: Euro Star documentary on BBC One Wales & Online on Friday at 20:30 BST

Against the backdrop of the world's fashion capital, Gareth Bale is ready to once again strut his stuff at the ground where he became a worldwide sensation.

"We are talking here about one of the best players in the world," Real Madrid icon Emilio Butragueno says of a 26-year-old who is key to club then country this summer.

Real Madrid chase an 11th European Cup at the San Siro Stadium in Milan on Saturday where Bale scored a dazzling Champions League hat-trick for Tottenham in 2010.

A year before the Champions League final comes to Bale's home-town of Cardiff, the Welshman stands 90 minutes away from a second European triumph for Real - but Wales will watch nervously as their talisman is integral to Chris Coleman's Euro 2016 hopes.

That night in Milan

Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale announced himself on the international stage with a fine hat-trick against Inter Milan in October 2010

Four goals and a man down after just 35 minutes on a clear October night in Milan, Tottenham had quite the task ahead of them in their debut Champions League campaign against Europe's champions.

But then Bale switched to another gear and forced Harry Redknapp's side back into contention.

His first goal came from a sensational 50-yard run down the left flank and a stunning finish from an angle past Julio Cesar.

His next came when he left veteran Javier Zanetti in the dust to score again with an almost identical goal, before capping off his hat-trick in injury time.

"Five more minutes and we would have drawn," his then Spurs manager Harry Redknapp told BBC Wales Sport's Gareth Bale documentary.

Then a 21-year-old, Bale had arrived on the world scene in stunning fashion.

Another level

Bale's heroics as Tottenham reached the quarter-final of the Champions League, only to lose, ironically, to Real, set the stage for him to become Spurs' star man and PFA Footballer of the Year before a world record £85m move to Madrid.

Jermaine Jenas and Gareth Bale
Jermaine Jenas celebrates with Gareth Bale at the San Siro

"He's playing with better players now, in what is technically the best league in Europe and he has the expectation on his shoulders," said former Spurs team-mate Jermaine Jenas.

"The art of winning things at a big club, when the expectation is there, that's something that helps your development."

Stepping out of Ronaldo's shadow

He scored decisive goals in the 2014 Copa del Rey and Champions League finals to help Madrid to 'la decima' - a 10th European Cup title - in his first season in Spain but the notoriously tough Bernabeu crowd turned on the Welshman in a difficult second season as rumours swirled of a Premier League return.

Ronaldo and Gareth Bale
Ronaldo was the world's most expensive player before Gareth Bale's transfer to join him at Real Madrid

"Because Gareth is such a great lad, I always had that worry that he would be in the shadow of Ronaldo, whether he would feel over-powered by him," explained Redknapp.

"But I thought Gareth coped great with it and has done really well. The Madrid fans can be critical, that's how it is there and players are going to come under fire if they have the slightest hiccup, but Gareth has come through that well."

Impressing the courtroom of the Santiago Bernabeu

Real legend Butragueno, who spearheaded the Spanish attack at the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, feels Bale has now won over the notoriously tough-to-please Madrid fans.

"Truly, he's an extraordinary player who is very committed and for us he's an essential player," Butragueno said.

Modric and Bale
Gareth Bale was reunited with former Spurs teammate Luka Modric when he joined Real Madrid

"Here at Real Madrid, we play every game like it is a final. It is like an exam and our fans are very demanding because they are used to winning and seeing extraordinary players.

"Therefore we could say the Bernabeu is like a courtroom where they know a lot about football and the level of demand is very high.

"He has been with us for three years and we hope he will stay for many more. We are confident he will be a fundamental player for us over the coming years and will leave a lasting legacy at the club," he said.

"We consider ourselves very lucky to be able to count on a player like him. We are very happy and at the same time very excited about the future of Gareth at Real Madrid.

From hiccups to helping Wales

Gareth Bale
Seven of Wales' 11 goals in Euro 2016 qualifying were scored by Gareth Bale

Bale has been a vital part of the Wales squad in the build up to this summer's European Championships as Chris Coleman's side reached their first major international tournament for 58 years.

He scored seven of Wales' 11 goals in qualifying to steer Wales to a second-placed finish in Group B.

Carlo Ancelotti, his former manager at Real Madrid, believes Wales will be able to draw upon Bale's experience in Spain during the Euros.

"Bale already helped his team from his experience in Madrid because he did really well in qualifications for the Euros," Ancelotti told BBC Wales Sport.

"For Wales it will be more competitive than for teams like France, Spain or Germany but I think Bale can be fantastic."

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