Real Madrid have one foot in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and maybe a few toes from the other too. A 5-2 win over Liverpool barely begins to tell the story of a ludicrous, exhilarating, error-strewn game at Anfield, but the high scoreline certainly points to one aspect being true: the level of finishing was extremely high.
A cursory glance at a few stats from the game might give someone who hadn’t watched pause for thought: nine shots apiece, Liverpool edging possession, the expected goals “scoreline” from the game fairly heavily in the Reds’ favour, 2.59 – 1.57.
But this was no fluke of Real Madrid’s in victory, no one-off whereby fortune simply favoured them – even if a deflection and a bizarre goalkeeping error are discounted.
No, this was in large part the end product of having one of the game’s most confident, most dangerous and most improved attackers in world football on the pitch: Vinicius Jr, who barely needs an opening to make it count when it matters most.
Real’s No20 is relentless and rapid, eye-catching and match-winning. He is, in the eyes of his manager, one of the best game-changers anywhere right now, and that’s certainly the impact he had on Merseyside.
“Vinicius right now in my opinion is the most decisive player in world football,” said Carlo Ancelotti after the game. “He’s the man who can make the biggest difference and if he can keep this consistency… let’s hope he can continue in this vein.”
Vanquished boss Jurgen Klopp was rather more succinct in his summary.
Asked if the 22-year-old is one of the best players in the world currently, the Liverpool boss replied: “Yes.”
What more needs to be said, in fairness?
The Brazilian has six now in this season’s Champions League across seven appearances, to go with seven in LaLiga and three at the recent Club World Cup. It’s 18 goals across all competitions in 22/23 – not to mention one scored and a couple assisted at the World Cup in Qatar for his national team.
Vinicus Jr is a phenomenal player, but more to the point he is one who is discovering consistency and a clinical, calm, ruthless edge.
It was he who found the first gaps through the cluttered, though not necessarily organised, Liverpool defence. His unerring curler for 2-1 set Real back on the right track, even after he had several times threatened to undo the hosts’ good start with his searing speed in behind the back line and willingness to chase lost causes.
That latter trait led directly to the equaliser, and his own brace, closing down Alisson and somehow forcing his compatriot to gift a second. Vini’s scoring was done at this point, but his influence certainly wasn’t: he won the free-kick for Real’s third and put Karim Benzema’s second more or less on a plate after again surging away from defenders.
It’s probably worth pointing out at this stage that Vinicius’ celebrations were not marred by abhorrent racist abuse.
Ludicrous though it is that it even needs stating, such a toxic and unforgiveable response to something as mundane as a footballer scoring a goal did not occur inside Anfield.
Yet it’s routinely what Vini has to go through when playing in LaLiga.
At the very end of 2022, the winger criticised Spain’s top flight for doing “nothing” to combat racist chants repeatedly aimed at him; just a few weeks later, Atletico Madrid fans hanged a dummy figure of him off a bridge before a Copa del Rey fixture. In February, more racist insults were aimed his way against Mallorca. It is an almost systematic abuse of him from supporters of many of the nation’s clubs at this point, a disgusting indictment of the mentality of match-going people and an utter embarrassment to the country’s football league – and the country at large – for failing to end it.
Real Valladolid earlier this month suspended a dozen season ticket holders for incidents involving Vinicius – from a game played in December. To be clear: it has taken until now for them to be merely stopped attending fixtures while an investigation begins inside the club. Nearly two months after the game.
LaLiga has punished precisely zero clubs for any racist incidents, claiming they do not have the authority. Reports are passed on to public prosecutors. None have resulted in any kind of sentence for a supporter. Nobody has been charged for the figure hung off a bridge.
And yet, in the face of incessant and reprehensible attitudes towards him, Vinicius Jr keeps on rising above it, showing his worth to his team and leading yet another push for trophies on the pitch.
His mentality, as much as his excellent technical prowess, is to be heralded. It was certainly on show as he pushed Real first back into the game, then in front in it.
Ancelotti leant into that strong mindset on show from his entire team on Tuesday night, citing it as a reason for coming back from two down – yet his final word on the matter was predictably on the attack ensuring the night ended positively. “We suffered early on, they made it hard for us,” he said. “You can’t start games like that. We know they start strongly. Fortunately, what always happens with our team: we kept our heads, kept cool, got ourselves back in the game and showed our quality.
“We were very effective in front of goal. When we managed to get away from their pressure we managed to gradually get ourselves back in the game. We improved our defensive aspect, got the ball out of defence and our players were very accurate in front of goal. Karim and Vinicius were very alert.”
The Brazilian has promised to continue dancing in celebration, come what may in response. The first leg here added yet more evidence to the body of work which suggests it would be no surprise if he’s showing his moves in the Ataturk Stadium in June.
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