Rodrygo is the silent assassin who drips with Madrid’s terrible purpose

Rodrygo of Real Madrid during the UEFA Champions League match v Internazionale on December 7, 2021 at Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain.

On a night when the Santiago Bernabeu shuddered with the tremors of another impossible glory, even the silence was deafening. 

Jack Grealish’s shot ball bobbled towards the goal. The grand old stadium walls held their breath and so did every one of the 61,000 people held in their cavernous embrace. It was over. Eighty-six minutes gone. The ball going in to make the aggregate score 6-3.

Then, from somewhere, out of the aether, Ferland Mendy appeared to knock it away. Real Madrid relief. But only temporary.

Manchester City came once more, wielding their diamond-encrusted blade, attempting to deal the killer blow. Grealish nipped in again and shot again, his strike perfectly placed in the far corner of the net. Somehow, somehow, Thibaut Courtois stretched out a leg. One stud of his left boot was all the contact he could make. Yet it was enough.

And there it was. The door to destiny had been nudged ajar. Rodrygo, standing at the other end of the pitch, saw the near future unfold, his terrible purpose set out ahead. This was his night.

After those two moments of excruciating silence, the heat and light that had defined the previous 87 minutes returned to the Bernabeu. Even Carlo Ancelotti had begun to fidget. Yet Rodrygo remained cool and calm, a silent, unflinching assassin sharpening the tools of his trade.

In this Madrid team, there are more eye-catching and rowdier players. The royal aura that surrounds Karim Benzema is suffocating. The terrifying, light-speed rampages of Vinicius Jr are impossible to ignore. The sheer elegance of Luka Modric crashes over your senses like a 60-foot wave over a dinghy.

Rodrygo – and Rodrygo’s skillset – is less immediately obvious. Or it is until he is sliding his knife into your back. City are a formidable foe, so two blows were needed. Rodrygo provided both in the way that he is so adept at doing.

While he might not have the presence of Benzema, the acceleration of Vinicius, or the passing range of Modric, Rodrygo has the remarkable knack of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

For his first, he ghosted across Ederson and stabbed the ball into the empty net. He barely smiled, merely summoning his team-mates back to their own half as if to say, ‘There’s my first, the second will soon come.’ And the inevitability of it quickly became clear to us as well as him.

Rodrygo worked it wide to Carvajal, and then the cross came. The 21-year-old Brazilian, the deadly killer with the face of a boy, was there again, not positioned for the cross, but for the deflection it took off Marco Asensio, as if somehow he had seen this all before a hundred times on a dusty DVD he watched as a child back in Santos.

Last week, Madrid’s mercurial cult hero Guti told El Chiringuito: “Real Madrid, that shirt, transmits it to you: that no matter how bad things go, even if they don’t turn out for you, that shirt gives you wings and makes you go fight back against difficult moments to fight to win.”

Rodrygo was wearing those wings – and he flew. From there, Karim Benzema’s winning penalty was another matter of when not if.

That feeling that Guti tried to describe is the least tangible of factors. It shouldn’t matter, yet it so obviously does. It is there in each blade of grass on the Bernabeu pitch, in each concrete block of the Bernabeu stands, in each yelp and howl of the Madridista crowd, and in every white thread of that regal, domineering shirt.

It is too much for some, the weight of history too heavy a burden to bear. For others, that peremptory culture, that imperious institutional memory, is fuel for the footballing soul.

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Karim Benzema of Real Madrid celebrates during the Champions League match v Manchester City at the Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain, 4 May 2022.

READ: 15 incredible stats as Real Madrid reach *17th* Champions League final

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Rodrygo has scored six goals in 70 La Liga appearances for Real Madrid. But in 26 Champions League games, he now has 10.

Five of those goals have come this season. Four of them have been in the 80th minute or later. Of those four, one was a last-minute winner against Inter in the group stage and the other three have been in crucial knockout ties – first against the reigning European Champions and then, on Wednesday night, against the reigning champions of England.

Real Madrid is an institution that was forged under the pressure of these crucial European moments. And in Rodrygo, it seems, they have a player who drips with the abominable majesty that defines the most terrifying agents of its inexorable victory march.

Rodrygo is not brash, he is not loud, but he was made to be here, made for nights and moments like these. Even at the end, as the players bounced and danced, he cut a lone figure on his haunches in the middle of the pitch. No showmanship, just a tranquil sense of promise fulfilled.

He is one of the Santos lightning bolts, following in the footsteps of Pele and Neymar. He is the son of a footballer, was ordained as the next great talent from an early age and was the youngest player to sign an endorsement deal with Nike. When he was 14, Zico saw him and immediately predicted a “beautiful future”.

He soon became the youngest player to score in the fabled Copa Libertadores and was snapped up by Madrid for €45million. Soon after his arrival, Zidane praised his intelligence and capacity to absorb information.

It was all set out before him, falling into place naturally, just like it did on Wednesday night. All this time, Rodrygo has been nonchalantly marching ahead, taking what he knows to be his.

Rodrygo is not one for noise. But he doesn’t need to be.

He just knows: right place, right time.

By Joshua Law

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