Vinicius Jr playing for Real Madrid against Levante as the two clubs meet in Spain's La Liga. Santiago Bernabeu, August 2021.

Forget Bale & Hazard, sharp-shooting Vini Jr is firing Madrid into the future

After Real Madrid‘s game with Levante in La Liga had come to an end on Sunday night, Vinicius Jr told us he’d been working all summer. 

Not to try to earn a dollar, not to cure the summertime blues of having lost to Argentina with Brazil at the Copa America, not for his own career advancement either. Nope. As Vini put it, he’s been toiling away under the Spanish sun because he wants to “put smiles on faces at Real Madrid.”

And he’d done just so in the previous 35 minutes. Or at least he’d taken the frowns off the faces of Madrid’s millions of fans. For when he skipped onto the pitch with an hour gone, Madrid were losing 2-1, and losing 2-1 to Levante. It is one of those results that isn’t supposed to happen.

Eventually, though, Los Blancos took a 3-3 draw; not great, but respectable away from home. And for their point, they had one man to thank – that jet-heeled Brazilian forward and his burning desire to make people happy.

While Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard are back starting for Madrid and have, as the mega-money men with the narrative surrounding them, stolen all the headlines, Vinicius is bringing something very different to Carlo Ancelotti’s attack – a new edge to his game that he’s been sharpening over summer.

He showed it last week after emerging from the substitute’s bench, scoring Madrid’s fourth in an easy win over Alaves with a close-range header. And he showed it again on Sunday night, this time far more crucially, rescuing his team-mates from a potentially embarrassing situation.

First, 12 minutes after he had come on, he was lurking on the left, hovering around the shoulder of the last man in Levante’s kamikaze high defensive line.

Casemiro picked up the ball in the middle, played an in-perfect through ball to his compatriot and Vinicius sped away beyond the defence. So far, so predictable. In the calmness of the finish, though, there was the sign of a new, more complete player emerging.

Vinicius side-footed it with his left from a tight angle while running at full pelt, perfectly finding the corner of the net past the outstretched leg of Fernando Pacheco.

Yet the truly special moment, the one that confirmed the suspicions aroused by that first goal, was still to come, just five minutes from time.

After Levante had taken the lead once more, the game swinging back again to favour the underdogs, Vini decided he was going to take control.

Levante’s defenders thought they had dealt with a corner, but it fell to Dani Carvajal, who played it to David Alaba who poked it onto Karim Benzema. Vini had drifted again, moving towards that favoured left side. Benzema saw him and played him in – a sign, perhaps, of a trust that was clearly not there last season.

Vinicius did not disappoint. From what looked a near-impossible situation, the Brazilian conjured a magical, futsal-forged finish, sending the ball curling up with his right big toe, spinning anti-clockwise with the RPM of a Shane Warne leg break before bouncing off the post and into the back of the net.

“I’ve not only been working on my finishing but also the tactical and technical side of my game to be able to help the team and will continue to do so to,” Vinicius added to the earlier statement from his post-match interview. That work, it seems, is starting to pay off.

He differs from Bale and Hazard in one obvious way, of course – that he can and will run beyond the last man again and again.

Hazard has always preferred to get the ball to feet and dribble at his man. Bale, meanwhile, used to be able to run beyond, but with the advance of age and injury cannot do so with great frequency anymore.

Yet Vinicius is also showing, with this barnstorming start to the season, that he could differ from Bale and Hazard by becoming an out-and-out killer, too.

Last season, the Brazilian managed three league goals in 1975 minutes of La Liga game time. This season he has matched that total after just 55 minutes on the pitch. And his second strike on Sunday was that of a truly elite player.

There were dozens ready to line up and slate Vinicius for not being a ‘natural finisher’ in his first two seasons in Spain. But who needs to be a natural when you can work your backside off to improve to the required level?

Finally, and most importantly, Vinicius, unlike Bale and Hazard, can belt out the Irma Thomas classic in the shower: time is on his side.

With the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo, Keylor Navas, James Rodriguez, Sergio Ramos and Rafael Varane over the past three years, Madrid have shown they are ready to rejuvenate the squad.

Over the coming years, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema will surely make way too.

Vinicius, with his early-season sharpshooting, is showing that he can be the man to lead the new generation marching boldly into Madrid’s future.

By Joshua Law

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