Everything is still to play for in Wednesday’s second leg of the Champions League semifinal between Manchester City and Real Madrid. But one thing may have been decided last week at the Bernabeu. The 1-1 draw in the first leg could mark the definitive moment in which Vinicius Junior becomes Brazil‘s leading attacking force.
For over a decade now, Brazil have been Neymar‘s team. The side has been set up for him and around him. The Neymar story is by no means over — at 31, there is still time for him to add plenty of glorious chapters. But, injury prone and perhaps unwanted at Paris Saint-Germain, his future is uncertain.
Vinicius, meanwhile, is making swift progress on the ‘up’ escalator. He spent time as a wonderful supply line for Karin Benzema. The goal he scored last Tuesday shows that he is already much more. He is nobody’s supporting cast. He can undress rival defences — former Italy legend Fabio Cannavaro told the Spanish media that the best way to counter his devastating speed is to pray — to lay on opportunities for colleagues, but he can also be a ruthless finisher in his own right.
He is now both bow and arrow — a phrase that former Brazil coach Tite used to enjoy employing to describe Neymar. Less than six months have passed since, spearheaded by Neymar, Brazil travelled to Qatar full of high World Cup hopes. It seems bizarre from today’s perspective, but Vinicius was something of a bolt-on in that side. He had made an unconvincing start to his international career, and right up until the opening game the coaching staff were debating whether or not he should be included in the starting XI.
His best games for his country came in Qatar. But he was taken off in the fateful quarterfinal against Croatia, in large part because he was not proving effective at pressing the opposing defenders. Future Brazil coaches will almost certainly cut him some slack on such duties — the kind of slack that in recent times has only been granted to Neymar. And that is especially the case if indeed Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti ends up taking the Brazil job.
Part of Ancelotti’s attraction to the Brazilian FA is precisely the affinity that he has forged with a number of Brazilian players, and Vinicius is a firm contender to be on top of the list. The player makes no secret of his desire to keep working with the Italian coach, either with his club or with the national team. So far, at least, the beneficiary of their relationship has been Real Madrid.
In 2017, it seemed like a high risk move when Real Madrid paid a reported €45 million fee to sign a 16-year-old with not a single professional game on his resume. It came across as a desperate over-reaction to missing out on talents such as Neymar. This time they were going to land their wonderkid, whatever the price.
Six years later, the fee looks like an absolute bargain. But the doubts were understandable. Real Madrid could only have him when he turned 18, and so his first professional steps were taken with Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo.
Last Saturday marked the sixth anniversary of his Flamengo debut — May 13, 2017, two months shy of his 17th birthday. The crowd at the Maracana were very keen to see him come off the bench, both in a spirit of curiosity and also in the knowledge that they would not have long to appreciate him. They howled for his introduction, and on he came for the last 10 minutes against Atletico Mineiro.
Vinicius ran through his list of tricks, almost all of which failed to come off. Rio crowds can be cruel. Ten minutes into his teenage debut he already heard the first boos of his professional career. Some in Brazil still had doubts that he would make the grade in Spain.
But he then gave notice that we were indeed dealing with something special. In March 2018 he came off the bench in a tight Copa Libertadores game away to Emelec of Ecuador and soon showed that he could combine his extreme pace with precision. His two quick goals turned a one-goal deficit into a 2-1 triumph.
The home fans might have been expected to be angry at him. But many of the Emelec supporters were well aware that their team had been beaten by a youngster of fascinating quality. They lined up after the final whistle to register the moment by having a photo taken with the teenage sensation. Many other defences have subsequently felt the force of Vinicius.
And if those Emelec fans have not deleted the photo, they have a souvenir to treasure. They caught Vinicius Junior in the early stages of the way up. Now other defenders have to try to catch the man who has surely become Brazil’s most potent attacking force.
As Neymar struggles, Vinicius will be Brazil’s focal point