After his club's draw at Villarreal late on Saturday night, Cristiano Ronaldo strolled through the bowels of the El??Madrigal stadium on his way to the Real Madrid bus. Spotting an English reporter he recognised he grinned and, affecting a comedy Mancunian accent, greeted him with: "a'right mate?"
Then, before breezing off, he said: "Don't worry, Bale is coming." Ronaldo was right in his assessment of media priorities. For once in his Madrid career the Portuguese was not the centre of interest. The British press were there in force to record Gareth Bale's first club outing since he was anointed the world's priciest footballer. However, when the man himself appeared in the mixed zone, unlike Ronaldo's self-confident strut, he put his head down, refused to engage in eye contact and walked on past, declining every invitation to give his views.
He looked as if he wished the attention would direct itself anywhere but in his direction. His reluctance to communicate was the one moment of hesitation on an otherwise assured debut in white. Starting on the right of midfield, he began conservatively, quickly passing the ball whenever he received it, frequently swapping wings with Ronaldo in the attempt to unsettle the home defence. Then, in the 39th minute, Bale found himself right in front of the net to seal his arrival in the best way possible: with a goal.
Even more tellingly, as he saluted the crowd with his usual heart-shaped finger mime, the first person to gallop over to congratulate him was Ronaldo. "He seemed to grow when that went in," said Paul Clement, Madrid's assistant manager, and Bale's one fellow Briton at the Bernabeu. "I'm sure it was quite a relief. The transfer was a long saga and ate into his pre-season. I'm sure he's pleased to have got that game out of the way. Particularly to have scored as well, that's very nice for him." Clement was right.
From the moment he scooped the ball into the Villarreal net, the Welshman's confidence blossomed. Early in the second half he received a short pass from Modric and fizzed a searing shot over the bar. But the moment that had the thousands in white shirts in the crowd on their feet was a galloping 30-yard run down the right wing, only curtailed by Jaume Costa's clattering intervention. "You do feel the history of the place," Clement said of the unique pressures the new boy faces.
"You feel the expectation, too. But when you're inside, it's a football team with normal guys, normal training, preparing for games as you would anywhere. The difference is what's happening outside that bubble, that's what takes time to accept and understand. Getting down to normal everyday work can feel a bit of relief and Gareth will feel that now." Clement and his immediate boss Carlo Ancelotti both seemed delighted with the speed at which their new signing has acclimatised. "His attitude is first class," Ancelotti said.
"He works hard for the team." What will have pleased them most, though, was the immediate evidence unfolding on the El Madrigal pitch that both their new signing and Ronaldo can be accommodated in the same team. Far from getting in each other's way, the pair's inclusion gave a neat balance to the Madrid side, providing, in their endless, restless movement, a constant threat. It seems the crunching tackle the Portuguese offered by way of a welcoming present in training last week has been quickly forgotten.
"It looks worse on camera than it was," Clement said of the challenge. "There is no issue between those two. None at all. Good players like to work with good players. "They'll help each other to achieve things for this club, I'm sure. And they've started well enough tonight. If they keep scoring together, everyone will be happy."