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Vinicius Jr is Real Madrid’s transformative big-stage star – with a twist

Written by on May 1, 2024

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At the end of Tuesday night’s dizzying 2-2 draw at Bayern Munich, Real Madrid’s press officer moved quickly to find Vinicius Junior on the pitch and give him a training top.

With the Brazilian half-naked after exchanging shirts with Bayern substitute Bryan Zaragoza, it was as if the visitors didn’t want him to catch a cold. That’s because Madrid can’t afford anything like a scare with their star player, who had just pulled his team out of the fire with their two goals in this Champions League semi-final’s first leg.

He did it playing as a No 9 and on a night when the 14-time European Cup/Champions League winners were facing Harry Kane, the striker their coach Carlo Ancelotti had asked for in vain last summer.

Madrid’s interest did not go beyond testing the waters for Kane and the England captain ended up joining Bayern from Tottenham Hotspur. Ancelotti’s squad instead welcomed a then 33-year-old Joselu on loan, who had just been relegated with Espanyol. In an injury-hit season that has also left him short of centre-backs as well as strikers, the Italian coach has become an expert in survival.

In the first part of it, he invented a new position for Jude Bellingham, another summer arrival, who scored 17 goals in 21 appearances before the Christmas break. In the second half, he has helped Vinicius Jr reach new levels while gradually centring his position, even converting him into a leader of Madrid’s forward line.

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Vinicius Jr’s first goal last night was the work of a pure striker, a clever run to make space in behind, a clinical cool finish beyond the approaching Manuel Neuer. The Brazilian ran to the corner flag in celebration, kissed the Madrid badge on his shirt, danced and spread his arms like Bellingham does after he scores, before walking back onto the pitch.


Vinicius Jr bowing to Kroos after the opening goal (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

There, he bowed to Toni Kroos, around whom more than half their team-mates had already gathered. Playing at his former home ground, Kroos’ through ball for the goal was a thing of beauty. Even though he played it down afterwards.

“A lot of credit to Vini, he offered me the pass with his movement. As I know him, he always goes into space. The pass wasn’t that special,” Kroos said.

“We train a lot together and we know each other very well,” said Vinicius Jr, who became only the fourth man in Champions League history to score in three straight semi-final legs.

But Madrid had started the game badly, very badly. And Ancelotti had been very, very angry.

In the 10th minute, he turned and stuck out four fingers at his son and assistant coach Davide, complaining about the number of times their players had lost possession already. Substitutes Eder Militao and Dani Ceballos stood up from the bench to add to the direction and encouragement shouted towards the field of play.

That mood changed suddenly when, about 15 minutes later, Kroos and Vinicius Jr combined with their devastatingly simple move for the opening goal. Kroos received the ball in midfield and immediately spotted what should happen next, pointing the way for his team-mate. Vinicius Jr saw what he meant and executed. It was out of the blue. Bayern were caught out, although their head coach Thomas Tuchel had almost predicted it.

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“If you look at their goals or their chances and rewind 10 seconds, you don’t see them coming,” Tuchel has said before the game.

In the second half, Bayern came back strongly. Leroy Sane’s powerful strike caused havoc. On the sidelines, Ancelotti scolded Vinicius Jr and Aurelien Tchouameni. Four minutes later, while Kane prepared to take the penalty that put the home side 2-1 up and international team-mate Bellingham tried to put him off, Vinicius Jr had another quick meeting with the Ancelottis.

And, as he has done so many times before, the Brazilian led the rebellion on the big stage.

Madrid did not give up, they never do. Their fans, who approached the game like it was a final, with 4,000 in the away stand at the Allianz Arena, chanted “Hasta el final, vamos Real!” (“Until the end, let’s go Real!”).

In the 83rd minute, when Vinicius Jr’s smart feet found Rodrygo in the box, there was no doubt who would take the penalty after the latter was fouled. Vinicius Jr had scored from the spot against Barcelona in El Clasico nine days previously and he would take the responsibility again. Lucas Vazquez retrieved the ball and pushed away a couple of Bayern players who were trying to bother his team-mate.

Vinicius Jr set it down carefully and wiped the sweat from his face with his shirt. The noise was almost deafening.

But Madrid’s Brazilian talisman slipped softly through the pressure. He scored again and again went to the corner to celebrate. Objects thrown from the stands landed around him as he crowned the moment by pointing to the No 7 on his back — the same as was worn for so long at Madrid by his idol Cristiano Ronaldo.

In sending that penalty past Neuer, he reached 32 goal contributions (21 goals and 11 assists) for Madrid this season, nudging ahead of Bellingham by one.

According to data provider Opta, since the start of the 2021-22 season, he has been directly involved in more goals in the Champions League than any other player (31 in total; 16 goals and 15 assists).

This is Vinicius Jr, a total player who has evolved so much that he could also be the striker Ancelotti wanted last summer.

“I’m very happy to be able to score two goals,” he said from the touchline after the game, having been named player of the match. “Now it’s time for a magical night at home.”

It all summed up the merit of Ancelotti, his staff and Vinicius Jr — having an idea to fill a gap and developing it well to the point where a left-winger can be the best player in a Champions League semi-final away leg while playing up front.

“Now he has learned to move well without the ball, moving at the back of the rivals,” Ancelotti said. “And then he’s very cold in front of goal.”

(Top photo: Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images)

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