Bale finally at home with Real Madrid stardom
On the eve of his second Champions League final since joining Real Madrid, Welsh star Gareth Bale admitted he is more at home with the fame and demands at the world's richest club.
Bale's time in the Spanish capital has been marked by severe highs and lows.
He instantly made himself a hero in his debut season with goals in the Champions League and Copa del Rey finals as Real beat their bitterest rivals Atletico Madrid and Barcelona respectively.
However, a difficult season ended with a barrage of insults from his own fans as Real bowed out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage to Juventus last year.
A series of frustrating injuries earlier this season have been forgotten in recent months as Bale has hit his best form since making the move to Madrid from Tottenham for a world record fee.
Bale starred as Real fell just a point short of Barcelona in the La Liga title race despite 12 consecutive wins to end their league campaign, and his deflected effort was the difference in a tight tie against Manchester City in the semi-finals as Real set up a second Champions League final in three years against Atletico.
"I feel more a part of it now," said Bale.
"In the first year you don't know a lot of people, you have to create relationships and now I feel more settled, more integrated into the team and more involved."
His importance to Real's star-studded squad has grown immeasurably since Zinedine Zidane took charge in January.
The Frenchman has masterminded a huge turnaround in Real's fortunes with 21 wins in 26 games.
And Bale credited Zidane's impact to his experience as a top player and knowing how not to overburden his richly talented squad with instructions.
"I have a very good relationship (with him)," added Bale.
"We speak all the time about what we can improve. He gives us freedom and confidence on the pitch and that has showed in the second half of the season."
The European pedigree between Madrid's crosstown rivals couldn't be starker.
Real are aiming for their 11th European Cup crown, whilst Atletico are hoping to win the competition for the first time in Milan on Saturday.
Atletico were just seconds away when the two sides met in Lisbon two years ago until Sergio Ramos's stoppage-time header sent the game into extra-time.
Bale then took centre stage as he nodded home a looping ball after Thibaut Courtois had saved from Angel di Maria, before Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo rounded off a 4-1 win.
"When the ball went up in the air it definitely seemed like in slow motion, it felt like I was hanging there for two days.
"I just wanted to get a good contact on the ball and get the goal to give us the lead. It is an amazing memory and hopefully I can recreate that.
"That's what I came here for, to be in Champions League finals and to win them."
© 2016 AFP