Clasico cup final: Bale the key as Real Madrid face Barcelona
Can the Welshman dispel doubts about his big-game temperament in the Copa del Rey final?
GARETH BALE will attempt to fill the shoes of the injured Cristiano Ronaldo in Spain's Copa del Rey cup final against Barcelona tonight, and finally prove that he was worth the staggering fee Real paid for him last summer.
According to Spanish sports paper AS, the Clasico showdown in Valencia will be "the biggest game" of his life.
"After an eight-year career in which he has played 330 official matches and scored 91 goals, Bale has won only one title: 2007-08 Carling Cup with Tottenham," says the paper, which helpfully points out that he missed that final against Chelsea with injury.
However, Bale moved to Spain "to start a medal collection", says Jim White in the Daily Telegraph. "Tonight offers him the first chance to begin."
And, in the absence of Ronaldo, he will be given the chance to show that he is more than just "the gilding on the lily" and can perform on the big stage after a season in which he has failed to convince many that he has what it takes when the pressure is on.
"With the Portuguese missing, the expectation on Bale to provide the magic and the bullets for his colleagues Angel Di Maria, Karim Benzema and Isco will rise," says White. "This is the real test, to see if he is able to rise to the occasion and become Madrid's main man."
It will be a tough task for the Welshman, says Andy West of the BBC, thanks to his team's recent habit of choking when the pressure is on.
"Considering the enormous pressure his team are subjected to, it would be very difficult for Bale, even as a newcomer, to insulate himself from the weight of expectation that threatens to suffocate Real Madrid whenever a glimpse of silverware comes into view," he says.
But Barcelona are the team under pressure ahead of the Clasico showdown, and that means "Bale's first final in Spain appears to provide the ideal opportunity for the Welshman to prove he can shine when a trophy is up for grabs, putting to rest the major remaining doubt over the wisdom of last summer's mega-money transfer".
So what of Barcelona? Not long ago they were hoping for a treble, but after their Champions League exit at the hands of Atletico Madrid and defeat to lowly Granada last weekend, which torpedoed their chances of winning La Liga, their sole hope of a trophy appears to be the Copa.
Their season has become a "car crash" says Sid Lowe in The Guardian.
There have been off-field problems, culminating in the Fifa-imposed transfer ban and to make matters worse superstar Lionel Messi is out of form, while several other players, including all their specialist centre-backs are injured.
"There is excitement but above all there is fear; a sense that, teetering on the edge, here come their biggest rivals, ready to give them the final gentle, gleeful push into the abyss below," he says. "Victory in the Copa del Rey will be celebrated but a cup success, even against their greatest rivals, will not make this a good season and will not alter the need for repairs."