September 30, 2022

The matches that made Vinicius Junior

We have often written the script for high profile youngsters like Vinicius Junior before they even arrive. Dropping nearly 50 million on a teenager, there is an expectation that said player will win your team trophies by themselves in the years to come. Such predictions rarely come to fruition, but, every now and then you have moments where investments pay off and a rising star realizes his potential.

That faithful night in Paris a fortnight ago was one of those moments. The finish was straight forward for someone who hasn’t followed Vini’s career closely. However, for the many of us who have watched (sometimes painfully) this young kid grow and suffer to reach this point, it was as cathartic moment for us as it was for the Brazilian.

I’ve had the pleasure of following Vini’s career quite closely since he arrived in the Spanish capital, from his early showings in the reserves to the present day and thought I’d try and compile a handful of games which I felt were big moments in getting the now-21 year old Vini to where he is today.

Real Madrid Castilla 2-2 Atletico Madrid B (2018-19)

The mini-derby was actually Vini’s second game with Castilla having made his debut against Las Palmas Atletico earlier in the month. Nonetheless, I think this game really put Vini on a lot of neutral’s radars for right and wrong reasons. He scored a first half brace, including an excellent shot from range that put Castilla in front.

He was also the victim of an attempted bite that he was, somehow, booked for. That incident overshadowed a strong individual display in the media, but no news is bad news as the old saying goes.

Real Madrid Castilla 1-1 Celta Vigo B (2018-19)

This match is one of my favorite Vinicius performances of all time. Even with all that he has achieved today, I’m still waiting to see the Brazilian take a game by the scruff of the neck like he did here. His side down 1-0 in the second half, Vini terrorized the Celta defense, winning foul after foul and pulling Castilla back into the match offensively. After being slashed down for the hundredeth time, the teen expressed his frustration by knocking a tight free kick into the top corner in the 83rd minute. A few minutes later he was given a second yellow card for “diving” and walked off the pitch furious.

The fury in this performance is what I love about it. Much of the second 45 is Vini combining sublime skill (for the third division) with camera cuts of him furiously muttering to himself. The sending off capped off an angry, world class showing that I am still waiting to see the like again (both in the player and at Castilla). It was also vitally important for his future as, if Solari hadn’t been won over by Vini’s talent at that stage, then this game eliminated all doubt. When the Argentine was given the first team job a few weeks later, Vini was on the list of Castilla heads that came along for the ride.

Real Madrid 2-0 Valladolid (2018-19)

Julen Lopetegui had tested the waters with Vinicius before his sacking, offering a humble 12 minutes across matches against Deportivo Alaves and Atletico Madrid. Higher on Vini’s potential after first hand experience, Solari gave the Brazilian the benefit of the doubt. After his first start against Melilla in the cup, the Argentine threw young Vini into a league match at home Valladolid. There were 15 minutes to go and Madrid were hurtling to a sixth league match without a win.

The Vinicius that would go on to define the rest of the 2018-19 season was raw, inefficient, exciting and fearless. All those traits were on display against Valladolid and was rewarded by forcing an own goal. Sergio Ramos would secure the win from the penalty spot but Vinicius’s impact off the bench was the main takeaway.

Four days later, Solari spoke about the Brazilian into the leadup to a Champions League game against Pizen “I want Vinicius to be a fully-fledged first-team player but that process has to be given gradually,” he said, “He is very young, very fresh, but he has things that are not normal at his age. When it’s inevitable, a player will end up playing.”

Real Madrid 1-3 Barcelona (2018-19)

The following run of matches was the beginning of the end for Solari while alot of the young blood he trusted really came into their own. The series of March Clasicos conjure images such as; Sergio Reguilion giving Luis Suarez a piece of his mind and crying after one of several humbling defeats and his ex-Castilla teammate was busy putting world class defenders to shame at the other end.

I think its impressive, looking at the highlight reel, how Vini has only needed to refine his game rather than change it completely. Much of this match sees him doing exactly what he’s does now, just with less confidence and experience. Given the criticisms and doubts Vini has already suffered in his young career, it speaks volumes to his tenacity to stick with and refine the game he plays rather than folding to pressure.

Real Madrid 1-4 Ajax (2018-19)

I think some of you will be surprised that, if I was going to choose an Ajax game for this list, I didn’t choose the first leg. However, this match stands out to me as the first in a line of setbacks for Vini and highlighting these setbacks are as important as highlighting the high marks. We learn the most from our defeats and failures after all.

Given the trend Real Madrid’s season’s was taking when this game kicked off, I don’t think the winger’s presence for the full 90 would of the changed the result. However, for Vini’s personal development, it stands as a big “what if” moment for me. Individually, we were starting to see the best that the teenager had to offer to that point and it would of been interesting to see where that momentum was leading. It would of also helped alot to convince a more skeptical Zinedine Zidane of his talents.

Instead he lost all that momentum and returned to a team that had nothing to play for, needing to prove himself all over again in the eyes of a new coach.

Real Madrid 2-0 Osasuna (2019-2020)

The infamous tears against Osasuna always sit uneasy with me. It’s one thing to see alot of unjust criticism for a youngster in media and another to see the clear effect it’s having on the player himself.

The old cliche “look what it means to him” generally gets tossed out at moments like these, but we rarely ask if such displays are a sign that it means too much for both a developing footballer and human being. Vinicius was barely out of the gate in his sophomore season with Real Madrid but expectation had changed drastically from the previous year. I can’t imagine how jarring it must of been for him to have the style that brought so much success become so vocally criticized.

It was completely unfair and, after the full time whistle against Osasuna, I did have concerns it was going to be too much for a player as young as Vini. For a time it certainly looked like that pressure had buried him. He played 71 minutes against Osasuna, he would only play that sort of game time four more times across all competitions in 2019 and wouldn’t score again until the new year. In the meantime, Rodrygo started to steal the limelight and questions began to brew on if the Brazilian should be loaned.

Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool (2020-2021)

I asked Twitter for suggestions for this article and this match was by far the most popular reply. It’s fortunate that it’s so well loved because my selective memory had blurred out this particular virtuoso showing and I had to do a quick recap while writing this article.

In many ways, the lead-up to this game was eerily similar to what we recently experienced for the Champions League final. Real Madrid’s talent was politely acknowledged but the pre-match verdict was Liverpool would fancy their chances.

It was perhaps this confidence that made Jurgen Klopp opt for quite a high line away from home, one which Vinicius ruthlessly exploited with a brace. The stage of his most recent goal against Liverpool probably means this performance gets overshadowed, but in terms of shaking off some mental demons and silencing his critics, this match was huge for Vinicius.

The first goal, for instance, looks astonishingly easy given the space Vini was afforded. However, he’d missed far easier chances on smaller stages up until that point. That the move was rounded off with such a wonderful finish, you can still feel the relief re-watching it.

It would be a bare-faced lie to say that it was all sunflowers and rainbows from this point on or that the games listed here are a definitive look at Vini’s career to that moment in Paris. However, from someone who has followed his career with Real Madrid from practically day one, I feel these moments give a good indication of what Vinicius Junior is about. His highs and lows have been sharp and dramatic and, at 21, its unlikely we’ve seen the last of them. With this in mind, I’m glad we can be confident that whatever the game throws Vinicius, he has proven himself capable of handling it.

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