Di Maria & Isco throw down the gauntlet to Bale

The Welshman was hurt in the warm-up before Real Madrid's 4-1 win over Getafe, but the Argentina and Spain stars shone in his absence and now look very difficult to displace
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

It was supposed to be all about Gareth Bale. The Welsh winger was poised to make his home debut for Real Madrid on Sunday; in front of 70,000 expectant fans, the stage was set. But injury intervened to force Bale out before he had even started. And in his absence, Isco and Angel Di Maria threw down the gauntlet to their expensive new team-mate.

Bale felt discomfort in the warm-up as he attempted to shoot and was denied his dream debut at the Santiago Bernabeu by a troublesome left thigh which will require further medical attention and tests on Monday. "Bale has a small problem," coach Carlo Ancelotti told the media after his side beat Getafe 4-1. "We can't say if it is an injury; we will have to wait until tomorrow to know more."

The 24-year-old is now a doubt for the trip to promoted side Elche on Wednesday, Ancelotti admitted. And by the time he is back in contention, the former Tottenham man now not only faces a battle to regain full fitness for his new club, but also a fight to make a first-team place his own.

Earlier on Sunday, Madrid president Florentino Perez spoke of his high hopes for the summer signing. "Gareth has arrived to form part of a spectacular team," the construction magnate told socios at an annual assembly. "He was the image and the marquee player of the Premier League. He will help us win titles, La Decima and more trophies - that's the challenge. Bale is destined to define an era at Real Madrid."

First of all, however, he has to get fit; then he has to win a place. And on Sunday's evidence, Isco and Di Maria may have something to say about that.

Madrid's forwards this season
2 Bale has made two appearances for Real since signing for €100m, but has yet to appear at the Bernabeu
4 Karim Benzema has scored four in six this term, but remains a target for the Bernabeu boo-boys
5 Isco has netted five goals in his first six games for Real Madrid
6 Angel di Maria has appeared in all six Madrid matches and racked up three assists so far this season
7 Ronaldo has scored seven so far and his Sunday double saw him equal Hugo Sanchez on 208 Madrid strikes
17 Madrid's forwards have scored 17 of the side's 18 goals to date this term. Pepe netted the other on Sunday
Isco's place should not be under threat. The former Malaga man was due to be benched on Sunday, but that was more likely to be because Madrid play three times in a week and rotation seemed logical. Nevertheless, he reacted remarkably when called upon to fill in for Bale, netting a lovely strike (his fifth in six games since joining Real), setting up several chances for his team-mates (including a cross which Karim Benzema should have buried) and showing some wonderful technique as he linked up with his fellow forwards. In fact, the 21-year-old even had the Bernabeu fans on their feet in the second half - and not many players achieve that.

"Everyone can talk about Isco's talent," Ancelotti enthused afterwards. "He overcomes pressure with great personality."

Di Maria's personality has also found favour with the 54-year-old coach. The Argentine looked set to leave the Spanish side in the summer following Jose Mourinho's exit as Madrid were willing to use him as bait in the deal to bring Bale to the Bernabeu, but he stood his ground and won over his new boss with an impressive attitude on and off the pitch which saw him move ahead of Mesut Ozil (subsequently sold to Arsenal) in the pecking order.

"He is a unique player both for his quality and his commitment," Ancelotti purred. "He works for the team and he helps the defenders. He is very important for us."

Indeed he is.

Di Maria tracked back on countless occasions, worked tirelessly to recover the ball and was an omnipresent force as Madrid poured forward. While Benzema was booed, the winger won the applause of the home fans for his unquestionable commitment and proved a constant threat to the visiting defence. The Argentine also helped set up the first goal and was unfortunate not to score one of his own as he hit two venomous efforts just off target. Such was his work-rate, in fact, that Marca later described the winger as "the soul" of the Madrid side.

"I stayed here in Madrid because I want to keep winning," the player himself said just last week. "When the coach tells me to play I will, and I will sit on the bench if he wants that. But I want to earn the starting spot because up until now I was playing regularly."

Ancelotti, of course, will be under pressure to pick Bale following the club's huge investment to bring the player to Madrid from Tottenham for a world-record fee of €100 million. And the Italian is also likely to rotate his stars as the fixtures come in thick and fast over the coming weeks. But as things stand, Isco and Di Maria have thrown down the gauntlet for the new kid in town. No matter what he costs, Bale will have to earn his starting spot at Madrid - just like everyone else. The hard work begins now.

Follow Ben Hayward on