The image of Gareth Bale galloping elegantly and effortlessly past rivals resembles a champion racehorse in its transfixing pomp. And the 21-year-old winger is no stranger to handicapping. Indeed during secondary school, his football coach prohibited him from taking more than a single touch at a time or from using his favoured left foot.
That action may have prevented Bale from turning 22-player matches into one-man shows, but it didn’t abate his graduation to professional prominence. At 16 he had become the second-youngest player in Southampton’s enduring history and the youngest to represent Wales at senior level; with the 17th year of his life in its infancy he scored sublime free-kicks in the Saints’ first two games of the 2006/07 Championship; by the end of that season he had been named Football League Young Player of the Year, despite being almost seven years younger than the other contenders; and before his 18th birthday he was the property of Premier League outfit Tottenham Hotspur.
Bale hit the ground running at White Hart Lane, scoring three goals in his first four starts and also impressing with his control, turn of pace, balance, productive trickery and stamina. However, despite his individual sparkle, Spurs had curiously failed to win by the time ankle ligament damage sustained against Birmingham City on 2 December ruled him out for the remainder of the campaign. It was the theme of his first two and a half years in north London: moments of genius submerged by consistent injury problems and Tottenham’s inability to triumph with the him on the pitch. Indeed, it took the Cardiff native a wholly unwelcome Premier League record of 24 games to finally emerge from a game victorious, and that was only as an 85th-minute substitute in a 5-0 thrashing of Burnley in September 2009.
Bale certainly made up for lost time after cementing his place in the first team during the second half of 2010/11. His highlights included scoring and starring in a 2-1 defeat of arch-rivals Arsenal, hitting the winner in a man-of-the-match display against eventual champions Chelsea, and being named Premier League Player of the Month for April. Tottenham’s reward was an unforeseen fourth-placed finish and, consequently, a UEFA Champions League play-off with Young Boys. And after Harry Redknapp’s side lost 3-2 in Bern in the first leg, their No3 set up all of their goals in a 4-0 victory in north London that secured Spurs a place in Group A alongside Inter Milan, Werder Bremen and Twente.
And though Bale continued to enhance his reputation on home shores during the early part of 2010/11 – one breathtaking volley against Stoke City helping - it took a truly extraordinary performance in Italy to announce himself as a genuine world-beater.
Nobody foresaw it at half-time at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Spurs trailed 4-0 and had been at a numerical advantage since the eighth minute. Their opponents were the reigning European champions, playing inside their own fortress. Moreover, they had a formidable defence and Bale was up against Maicon, a man considered by many to be the world’s finest right-back.
Shortly after the restart, however, the Welshman received possession 15 yards inside his own half, rapidly glided past Maicon, Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel, and buried a firm, low drive across Julio Cesar and into the bottom corner. Even by the standards of this serial scorer of wonder goals, it was a one-off – or at least that was the consensus until he netted a virtual carbon-copy to reduce Spurs’ deficit. Bale then completed his hat-trick to ensure the ten-man visitors departed having only lost 4-3, and he left with a selection of the continent’s most prestigious suitors - namely both Milanese giants, Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United - in awe of his exhibition and dreaming of his signature.
“He could play for any club in the world,” wowed Tottenham team-mate Alan Hutton afterwards. “Maicon is supposed to be one of the best fullbacks in the world, but Gareth caused him all sorts of problems. He has that magic touch for goals and he proved it again. To get three goals anywhere is good for your pride, but to get three goals in Italy, against the champions, is pretty sensational. You come to expect it of him.”
Peter Crouch said: "Gareth Bale is unbelievable. He's been like that for two years. But to score a hat-trick at the San Siro is something special. They were three fantastic finishes. He's still young and is already a top player,” while Heurelho Gomes added: “Gareth is on fire. His three goals against Inter were unbelievable. If he was Brazilian he would get in the national team!”
Following his superstar-making performance in Italy, all eyes will be on Bale as he strives to harm Rafa Benitez’s side at White Hart Lane tonight, in what is a crucial game in the English team’s quest for a place in the knockout phase – with three rounds remaining, Inter lead Group A on seven points, three above Tottenham, with Werder and Twente both on two points.
Characteristically, Bale was quick to diminish his own importance to Spurs’ hopes of victory. “At home we're always confident we can win, and we've definitely got the players to do that,” he said. “We'll go into the game full of confidence and trying to prove something to the world.
"It's going to be a massive game. We can't start as badly as we did at the San Siro and I think if we get a good start, we can build on that. If we start well and keep a clean sheet, we're always capable of scoring a lot of goals. It's just important that we learn from our mistakes in Italy.”
It is likewise imperative Inter learn from their only oversight two weeks ago: underestimate Gareth Bale at your peril.