The greatest goals never scored: Gareth Bale v Athletic Bilbao
No matter how Gareth Bale is remembered at Real Madrid, he’ll always have those Barcelona and Liverpool goals. And only the width of a post denied him a trilogy of sensational goals.
When Bale ultimately leaves Madrid, we get the feeling his spell in Spain will get the revisionist treatment. The Welshman’s face has never quite fit, but his solo goal against Barcelona and the bicycle kick against Liverpool are better goals than many will score in their entire Real Madrid spells.
And he was inches away from another intensely memorable yet unreplicable strike in La Liga.
Despite ending his debut season with the vital go-ahead goal in the 2014 Champions League final, the then-world record signing still had a bit to prove. After all, he hadn’t managed to find the net in regulation time against Atletico Madrid.
The following season brought 14 goals before the end of January, but Bale was in the middle of a dry spell when he and his team-mates travelled to Bilbao to face Athletic in early March.
In such a situation, you might expect a player to go out in search of a simple chance, an opportunity to get into his groove again with a tap-in or a penalty.
Bale, however, has never liked to do things the easy way. Which explains this effort.
Strangely, Gorka Iraizoz seemed to accept he was beaten almost immediately as if he was trying to burrow a hole he could then dive into as soon as the ball hit the net.
In fact, the shot seems so destined to go in that even Chicharito – Chicharito – decides against getting into position for the rebound and simply throws his arms up in celebration.
The reactions of both players allow us to understand the brilliance of Bale’s effort: he doesn’t give either of them the time or opportunity to prepare a response, yet there is not a moment of doubt from either of them.
Bale does what he's best at doing, play horribly then do that one brilliant shot that makes football fans cry.
— Fatima (@fatimafsays) March 7, 2015
It doesn’t matter that there was no justification for Bale shooting from there.
He had options in front of him, sure, but he knew he’d get no credit for playing in someone else to score.
The thing is, as soon as you’re at the “f**k it, I’ll do what I want” stage of your time at a club, you subconsciously make the “what I want” part of the equation better. After all, there’s no better inspiration than spite.
We can just picture what the celebration would have been like if the ball had nestled in the back of the net. It was surely a time for that heady blend of relief and anger, with the Welshman keen to show everyone he’d done all the work himself but simultaneously wary that it would have been an equaliser in a game full of wasteful finishing from Los Blancos.
Often, when a player scores a goal which is in equal parts stunning and impossible, they trade an orthodox celebration for confusion at what they have just done. When it comes to Bale, though, we get the sense he’d have known exactly how to respond.
After all, he’s already a couple of steps ahead of his peers by even deigning to try from there. He’s already operating on a higher plane, so who are we to second-guess something which feels like a mystery to us but for him was just another part of the plan?
Perhaps more importantly than us being denied a moment of true genius, Bale’s failure to score – and Real Madrid’s failure to get a point as San Mamés – spelt the end for their attempted title charge.
Barcelona overtook them at the top that weekend, beat them in El Clásico shortly after, and even a run of 28 points and 40 goals in the last 10 games wasn’t enough to claw back their rivals.
Bale hitting the post didn’t just deny us a wonderful spectacle in its own right, it denied his club a title and, ultimately, denied Carlo Ancelotti a chance to stick around at the Bernabéu.