After a season dominated by injuries and disappointment at dropping down the pecking order at the Santiago Bernabeu, Gareth Bale showed why he was once the most expensive player in the world to win a third consecutive Champions League final for Real Madrid.
Bale came off the bench to score twice, including a stunning overhead kick with his first meaningful touch, as Real ran out 3-1 winners over Liverpool to secure a 13th European Cup in Kiev.
Just as he had for last season’s final in his native Cardiff, Bale had been left on the sidelines from the start despite a stunning end to the season having scored four times in his previous three games.
And the Welshman didn’t waste any time in making an impact with an acrobatic bicycle kick that will live long in the memory as it looped over the helpless Loris Karius, on a miserable night for the German ‘keeper.
Karius had been at fault for Karim Benzema’s opener just after half-time, and he then spilled Bale’s 30-yard strike into his own net seven minutes from time to seal Liverpool’s fate.
Bale has now won four Champions League winner’s medals in five seasons since moving to Madrid.
And his wonder strike brought back memories of Zidane’s own magnificent volleyed winner to win Madrid the Champions League against Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park in 2002.
That even one of the greatest players of all-time reacted with such wonder at Bale’s brilliance on the touchline was testament to a strike worthy of winning any final.
It may also ensure that Bale’s future lies in the Spanish capital rather than returning to the Premier League this summer frustrated by his lack of opportunities in the biggest games.
Bale started just one of Real’s seven knockout matches in the Champions League. In the one he did, he was hooked at half-time by Zidane as Juventus threatened to come back from a 3-0 first-leg deficit at the Bernabeu in the second leg of the quarter-finals.
A host of injuries have prevented Bale from maximising his potential in Madrid.
A recurring calf problem saw him sidelined for two months early in the campaign and he struggled to regain Zidane’s confidence even after returning to fitness just before the turn of the year.
However, the signs were there in recent weeks that Bale was rediscovering the form that enticed Real to pay Tottenham Hotspur a then-world record 91 million euros in 2013.
For the first time since a stunning solo run and finish to win the Copa del Rey in his debut Real season, Bale scored in an El Clasico against Barcelona earlier this month.
Two more thumping finishes against Celta Vigo followed a week later and he also ended the domestic season by netting at Villarreal to make the strongest case possible to Zidane for a start in Kiev.
It still wasn’t enough, but Bale’s case going forward will be far harder to ignore.
An early shoulder injury robbed Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah the opportunity to bolster his case as a Ballon d’Or successor to Cristiano Ronaldo.
For once in the final, it wasn’t the Portuguese who made the difference for Real.
When Bale was signed many saw him as the future king at the Bernabeu once Ronaldo’s powers began to wane.
It hasn’t always been an easy ride, but Bale’s time finally came in Kiev.
© Agence France-Presse