Gareth Bale loves playing at Anoeta. The 28-year-old has been booed by Real Madrid fans at the Santiago Bernabeu recently, but always seems to find something special away to Real Sociedad. He did so again on Sunday and, along with Borja Mayoral, helped avert a crisis for Los Blancos in La Liga.
Disappointing draws against Valencia and Levante at home had seen Madrid drop four points in the past two rounds of the Primera Division and Barcelona’s last-gasp 2-1 win at Getafe on Saturday meant Zinedine Zidane’s side were seven adrift of the Blaugrana ahead of their trip to San Sebastian.
Real Sociedad had won their opening three league fixtures to sit joint-top of the table, so this match looked like a tough test for Madrid – especially with Cristiano Ronaldo still suspended, Marcelo also banned, and Karim Benzema, Mateo Kovacic and Toni Kroos all sidelined through injury.
With a lack of firepower all-too apparent in the past two fixtures and ZIdane admitting that he would have liked to bring in another striker following the summer sale of Alvaro Morata to Chelsea, the French coach handed a surprise start to Mayoral on Sunday alongside Marco Asensio and Bale in attack.
“Maybe we could do with another number 9, but it wasn’t to be in the end,” he said last week. “Morata wanted to play more, he wanted to leave. We weren’t able to bring in another player, but I believe in [Borja] Mayoral and we also have Gareth. It’s true that he plays more on the wing, but we’ll make do.”
And make do they did. Mayoral opened the scoring with a classic poacher’s finish and forced an own-goal later on in the first half after Real Sociedad had equalised through Kevin Rodrigues, whose shot should have been saved by Keylor Navas.
Then, with the match very much in the balance in the balance in the second half as the Basque side fought to level the scores, Isco played an exquisite long ball from deep for Bale, the Welsh winger sprinting all of 73 yards to overtake Kevin with tremendous speed and dink a fine finish over goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.
It was his sixth goal in five league meetings at Anoeta and he has scored in all of his visits to Real Sociedad in La Liga. Once again, he was the talisman and it was the perfect response to recent criticism and jeers from Madrid fans.
“I can’t control what the fans do,” he said afterwards. “It happens in football. I’m happy with the goal and the most important thing was for the team to win the three points.” And he added, when asked about the way he scored his team’s third of the night: “That’s the way I like to play, but I have other ways of playing too.”
Madrid secured an 11th successive away win for the first time in their history and Los Blancos have now scored in their last 73 matches to equal a record set by Pele’s Santos side – a run that started, incidentally, with a Bale strike at Anoeta.
“Bale’s goal was decisive,” Madrid’s director of institutional relations, Emilio Butragueno said after the match. And defender Dani Carvajal said: “I’m very happy for Bale and for Borja – they needed that. We have a very large squad and Mayoral is ready to compete at the highest level, as he showed today.”
A potential banana skin was successfully swerved by Madrid and with Ronaldo’s five-match ban now over, the Portuguese can return for Los Blancos against Betis at home on Wednesday night. And as Barca face up to several months without summer signing Ousmane Dembele, a four-point gap means very little at this stage of the Primera Division.
So Los Blancos are back on track and Zidane will go home happy after Bale and Mayoral stepped up to the plate on Sunday.