A Gareth Bale wonder-strike decided Wednesday’s Copa del Rey final at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium, with Real Madrid’s latest galactico netting with just five minutes left to see his side beat rivals Barcelona 2-1. The result gave Bale his first major trophy, and deepened the sense of crisis hovering around a Barcelona team that have now lost three straight games.
With the game in the balance Bale sprinted half the pitch before coolly finishing past Barca keeper Jose Manuel Pinto, sending the white half of the stadium into raptures, and ensuring that Madrid captain Iker Casillas received the trophy from Spain’s King Juan Carlos I after the final whistle went. It was an astonishing goal, delivered under pressure from Marc Bartra. The former Tottenham man still had the gas to run 60 yards down the left sideline, leaving Bartra in his wake, and then had the calmness to poke the ball through Pinto’s legs at near post.
Madrid were much the better team, going ahead early through Angel di Maria, and really should have been out of sight before Bartra surprisingly headed Barca level with just 20 minutes left. Real’s approach was not as physical as when they won the 2011 Copa final meeting here, with Jose Mourinho in charge. But — even without injured superstar Cristiano Ronaldo — Ancelotti’s side did have a cunning tactical plan. That involved sitting deep and letting Barca have the ball in front of them, and then breaking with pace and accuracy down the left, with Bale too fast and strong for his markers.
The Welsh winger had the game’s first chance — bursting through the channel between Dani Alves and Bartra, only to pull his shot across goal. Barca had been warned, but did not learn. Isco battled superbly to win the ball from Alves in midfield and immediately set a break flowing — Bale fed Karim Benzema, who sent di Maria racing clear. The Argentine winger’s shot was low but not very hard, and Pinto really should have got a strong enough hand to the ball to keep it out.
Just 10 minutes in Madrid now had something to hold, and the pattern of the game was set. Barca had lots of the ball, with Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas often involved in midfield, but they could only create half-chances, such as two headers from Jordi Alba and Neymar which did not trouble Blancos keeper Casillas.
Isco was having a stormer in midfield, and he linked with again with Bale in a quick counter- and seemed sure to sidefoot home his side’s second, only for Alba to appear out of nowhere and block. Two more breaks almost worked for Madrid but final balls from Isco and Benzema to Bale were a smidgeon out.
Messi finally appeared just four minutes before halftime, but he dragged his 20 yard volley well wide, and he and his team went to the break with their heads down. The second half began equally happily for Madrid, with huge cheers as Messi sent a thirty-yard free kick sailing into the Madrid masses behind Casillas’ goal. At other end Barca fans were soon ducking as Bale’s twenty-yard volley whistled just over the top.
Madrid sensed blood. Sergio Ramos’ header was straight at Pinto. Benzema had one shot deflected just wide and forced a sharp stop from Pinto with a second. The 38-year-old keeper went walkabout from the resulting corner, and Bale had the ball in the net, but Mateu Lahoz saw a push and said no goal.
Seconds later, out of the blue, it was 1-1, from the most unlikeliest of sources. Young center-back Bartra, only passed fit an hour before the game began, got up superbly over Pepe to meet Xavi’s corner and bullet a header past Casillas from 10 yards. Barca had seemed dead and buried, but now it was all square, and the noise was coming from the other end.
It seemed we were set for 30 minutes more — just like three years ago — but Bale had other ideas.
There was just enough time left for Neymar to be sent clear, but Barca’s big last summer signing pinged his shot off the post. At the final whistle Barcelona’s awful April had continued, and the Catalan side really, really needs a rethink this summer, with coach Gerardo Martino surely now leaving the Camp Nou.
Meanwhile Bale and Ancelotti both have already won one big trophy in their first season at Madrid, and go forward in buoyant mood to their upcoming Champions League semifinals against Bayern Munich.