The much-anticipated Real Madrid debut of Gareth Bale and his chemistry (or lack thereof) with fellow big dog Cristiano Ronaldo was understandably the be-all and end-all of the pre-match hype for Villarreal’s home fixture against Los Galacticos.
Most of you were predicting it would go one of two ways: either the superstar attacking squad would hit the ground running as a dream team and lay waste to their newly-promoted hosts, or that the two would struggle to co-exist in the same setup and get off to an embarrassing start for a near-€200million two-man show.
The real answer at the final whistle, however, turned out to be the scarcely-mentioned ‘Option C’ – that Bale and Ronaldo would indeed both make their mark on the game, BUT would end up being upstaged by not one, but several other people.
You can read the match report here, but we are going to run down a few other stories that emerged from a thoroughly-entertaining 2-2 draw at El Madrigal from beneath a sea of CR7 and GB11 hype:
1) Diego Lopez
The Real Madrid goalkeeper, who spent five productive seasons at Villarreal between 2007 and 2012, has made a habit of upstaging his bigger-name colleagues since returning to the club from Sevilla at the start of the year. First he outshone Iker Casillas, and now his string of excellent saves stopped Bale’s debut from ending in a humbling defeat to his old club.
Once upon a time, dos Santos and Bale shared a dressing room at Tottenham. Formerly hot property at Barcelona, the Mexican was supposed to be the superstar in North London that the Welshman eventually became after a slow start to life at White Hart Lane. At Mallorca and now Villarreal, Giovani is finally getting his career back on track and his impressive performance was capped with the game-leveller which saw the ex-Barca prodigy ensure the Catalonians stayed above their Clasico rivals in the table.
One of the only remaining survivors from Villarreal’s mid-2000s zenith, it was uncertain in the summer whether the now 32-year-old midfielder would be able to shine in the top flight the second time around following the Yellow Submarine’s instant return from the Segunda – but as the home side’s brightest spark in the early stages, he helped ensure that the underdogs were not bullied by their stronger opponents.
4) Marcelino Garcia Toral
How often do you see an unfancied side resort to unfamiliar, pragmatic tactics in hope of surviving a fixture against one of the league’s front-runners with a point? Toral, who took the managerial reins in the middle of 2012-13 and steered Villarreal towards promotion, has established a confident and fluent counter-attacking style and admirably stuck to his guns when Bale, Ronaldo and the world’s eyes came to town.
Not only that, but while Carlo Ancelotti was substituting Bale off out of necessity, Toral was making excellent tactical changes such as the introduction of enforcer Tomas Pina, who saw out the draw with aplomb. It did indeed get Marcelino and his men a point, but a far more respectable one than that which a flat back nine would have earned – and it was almost all three.
5) Real Madrid’s suspect defence
Bale and Ronaldo were joined by Isco as a three-man attacking support for target man Benzema, bringing together three of the world’s finest talismen of last season. But while they will surely gel further as 2013-14 wears on and devastate many a defence, their own back line remains an issue.
Though an injury crisis hasn’t helped Ancelotti, his fringe full-backs Nacho and Daniel Carvajal were actually outdone in the jittery stakes by more experienced centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Pepe. As a unit, all four endured a torrid time thanks to Jonathan Pereira, Bruno, Giovani, Cani and company.
Liam Happe | Follow on Twitter