Real Madrid v Barcelona: Vinicius shining bright after bleak post-Ronaldo outlook
- Vinicius Junior has flourished since Gareth Bale's injury-enforced absence and provided Real Madrid with a positive outlook.
Having invited a 13-year-old Neymar for a trial that lasted 19 days and included 27 goals during training sessions, losing out on his signature to arch-rivals Barcelona in 2013 was gutting for Real Madrid president Florentino Perez.
Neymar going on to form one of the most formidable attacking units in the history of football alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at Camp Nou - they accumulated 364 goals in a combined 450 games - must have made Perez even more determined not to be beaten to the next South American prodigy.
It was therefore unsurprising that Madrid stumped up a reported €46million to sign Vinicius Junior in May 2017, despite the 16-year-old Brazilian having made just two first-team appearances for Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo.
There could be no doubt it was simply a bet on the future for Madrid, but they are already reaping the rewards.
With his slender frame and braces, Vinicius looked like someone closer to playing for their school team than in front of 80,000 people at the Santiago Bernabeu in the famous white shirt of Real Madrid. Yet the reality was the opposite, and his haul of seven goals in eight appearances during Brazil's victorious 2017 South American Under-17 Championship showed he possessed potential unmatched by his continental contemporaries.
Foi dia de novidade no Ninho. Vinicius Junior participou do treino pela primeira vez como parte do elenco profissional. O garoto usará a 20. pic.twitter.com/aw4Z6ZDMS5— Flamengo (@Flamengo) May 12, 2017
An agreement to join Madrid did not make Vinicius a guaranteed starter at Flamengo, though. The pressure that comes with playing for one of the biggest clubs in a football-mad nation – and in a physical league against grown men – should not be underestimated.
But after a steady introduction he locked down a first-team place and totalled 69 appearances after his final Flamengo outing in June 2018.
Madrid refused an option to keep the teenager on loan at Flamengo for another 12 months, clearly deeming he was ready for the switch to Spain.
However, once again there was no rush on Vinicius. He started the season in the Castilla set-up with Julen Lopetegui seemingly not keen on the young attacker, but his undoubted talent soon did the talking.
Vinicius' direct, electric dribbling, nimble feet and quality from set-pieces made him a nightmare for defenders in the Segunda B. It all proved too much for Atletico Madrid B captain Tachi, who bizarrely took to biting Vinicius on the head after his double in the meeting between the rival clubs.
The departure of Lopetegui after a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Barca in October led to Santiago Solari being promoted to the top job from Castilla, and he has since made Vinicius an important part of his first team.
His rise has been rapid, but he has taken every step on the ladder. Such a path no doubt helped ensure that rather than fold when tasked with filling in following an injury to Gareth Bale at the start of 2019, Vinicius flourished.
Vinicius' integration has been aided by a desire to learn – and continue developing his understanding of – Spanish since the move was announced two and a half years ago. When considered against Marcelo's comments this month that Bale only speaks English in the dressing room and communicates with the left-back via "gestures", the difference such an act can make is big.
As a relentlessly positive outlet on the wing Vinicius has provided a team that had been struggling to consistently perform at the top level with a much-needed boost.
Selected ahead of Bale for El Derbi against Atletico on February 9, the Brazilian teenager won the penalty that was converted by Sergio Ramos en route to a 3-1 victory.
Four days later it was his piercing run down the left wing that carved apart the Ajax defence and enabled him to set up Karim Benzema for a thunderous opener in a 2-1 win in the first leg of the last-16 Champions League tie.
Vinicius will no doubt have been affected by the fire at Flamengo's youth team base that resulted in 10 players losing their lives. Turning in such displays in the days following that dreadful incident was a show of great maturity on his part.
Now the 18-year-old is set to be called up by Brazil coach Tite for friendlies against Czech Republic and Panama in March.
While Madrid's hopes of beating Barca to top spot in LaLiga are distant at best, Vinicius' development so far has surpassed expectations and provides promise in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era.
Bale was expected to be Ronaldo's successor at the Bernabeu, but another stellar performance from Vinicius in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final - level at 1-1 - against Barca on Wednesday could see that view shift in the Brazilian's favour.