Alexa

Bale making name as Europe's most exciting player

 Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale throws a bib at a ball during a training session at the training ground, Chigwell, England, Monday, Nov. 1, 2010. Tot...
 Tottenham's Gareth Bale moves the ball away from Inter Milan during their Champions League group A soccer match at Tottenham's White Hart Lane Stadiu...
 Tottenham's Peter Crouch, right, jumps for an aerial ball with Inter Milan's Maicon during their Champions League group A soccer match at Tottenham's...
 Tottenham's Gareth Bale, right, moves the ball away from Inter Milan during their Champions League group A soccer match against Inter Milan at Totten...
 Tottenham's players ,right, celeebrate  as Inter Milan's Diego Milito and Maicon, left, react during their Champions League group A soccer match agai...

Britain Soccer Champions League

Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale throws a bib at a ball during a training session at the training ground, Chigwell, England, Monday, Nov. 1, 2010. Tot...

Britain Soccer Champions League

Tottenham's Gareth Bale moves the ball away from Inter Milan during their Champions League group A soccer match at Tottenham's White Hart Lane Stadiu...

Britain Soccer Champions League

Tottenham's Peter Crouch, right, jumps for an aerial ball with Inter Milan's Maicon during their Champions League group A soccer match at Tottenham's...

Britain Soccer Champions League

Tottenham's Gareth Bale, right, moves the ball away from Inter Milan during their Champions League group A soccer match against Inter Milan at Totten...

Britain Soccer Champions League

Tottenham's players ,right, celeebrate as Inter Milan's Diego Milito and Maicon, left, react during their Champions League group A soccer match agai...

A shade over two months ago, in a packed auditorium in Monaco, Sisenando Maicon Douglas _ known simply as Maicon by the opponents who fear him _ beamed with pride as he was presented with a ball-shaped silver trophy for being the best defender in European club football for 2010.
How quickly a reputation can be ruined.
Gareth Bale is the player making a name for himself now. On Maicon's back. In two astounding nights of Champions League football that confirmed him as Europe's most exciting footballer of the moment, Bale made Maicon look silly.
He did the same to Lucio, too. Simply astonishing when one remembers that the defensive partnership between those two imposing Brazilian internationals was a foundation stone for Inter Milan's success last season. They formed part of coach Jose Mourinho's defensive fortress which broke Lionel Messi's Barcelona and, in the Champions League final which followed, prevented Bayern Munich from lighting up the scoreboard at Madrid's Bernabeu stadium.
Yet Bale blew past both defenders repeatedly on Tuesday night as though they were hardly there. Such speed. Even at full tilt, Tottenham's wonder winger gives the impression that he could, if needed, run faster still.
He is impishly cheeky with his changes of pace, too. Allowing Lucio a tempting head-start to a ball only to leave him for dead was delightful. That eel-like run from deep in Tottenham's own half and down the left side that Bale transformed into his own personal playground came four minutes before the final whistle, so the 21-year-old has enviable stamina, too.
His manager, Harry Redknapp, joked ebulliently afterward that the post-match dope testers would be wise to take a look at Bale. Redknapp will laughing even harder if he can now fend off interest from European clubs bigger than Tottenham, and for whom money is no object, that are probably going to try to recruit such a fine creator and scorer of goals.
Based on this enthralling match, Alex Ferguson was absolutely correct in arguing this week that the Champions League offers more attractive football than the World Cup. Although, unlike the Manchester United manager, I would still rather watch even a poor World Cup match _ and there were too many of those this year in South Africa _ than visit the dentist, which he suggested would be a better use of one's time.
And based on this match, and the teams' previous encounter two weeks ago where Inter nearly blew a 4-0 first-half lead by allowing Bale to score a second-half hat-trick, the Italian side will not become the first Champions League winners to successfully defend that title.
Inheriting Mourinho's team that won everything last season was always going to be risky for new manager Rafa Benitez, who seems likely to prove that the only way forward for Inter from their previous heights is down. The Spaniard who left Liverpool with memories both good and bad says that he wants to preserve the best parts of Mourinho's legacy. But it's a safe bet that Mourinho, now at Real Madrid, would have searched in his notebooks for a better strategy to try to counter Bale's quick feet.
As it was, Maicon was utterly overwhelmed.
"He killed him," said the scorer of Tottenham's first goal, Rafael van der Vaart. "We have to keep this guy."
What makes Bale more dangerous than the likes of Chelsea's Ashley Cole or Arsenal's Theo Walcott, who also have speed, is the superior quality of his crosses. His gift to Peter Crouch on 25 minutes, again after sprinting around Maicon, should have put Tottenham 2-0 up. Having humbled Lucio, Bale's cross that Crouch's replacement Roman Pavlyuchenko slotted in to make the final score 3-1 was also inch-perfect.
Bale sprints with his head up, giving him vision across the pitch, and his speed gives him extra milliseconds of breathing space to coolly decide where to best place his pass.
Perhaps Inter should have begged the referee to adopt the same handicap that Gwyn Morris, his former sports teacher, imposed on Bale when he was still just an athletic schoolboy in Cardiff, playing rugby as well as football and running cross-country and track. Morris says that in training games, he sometimes banned Bale from playing with his favored left foot.
"Use his left foot and it was a free-kick against him," Morris says.
Unfortunately, Bale plays his international football for Wales. It has not reached the finals of a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup in Sweden and, even with Bale, isn't likely to any time soon. So, as with fellow Welshman Ryan Giggs, much of the world will not get to savor his skills on an international stage.
What a pity.
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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.