The Brazilian played just 12 minutes under Julen Lopetegui, but has quickly become one of the club’s key players under Santiago Solari
“He always has the support of the mature players in the squad, who take care of him, love him and they advise him.”
As the words of Santiago Solari prove, Vinicius Junior is very much loved at Real Madrid. Loved by his coach. Loved by his team-mates. Loved by the fans.
“He played a great match, Vinicius, and was applauded from the Bernabeu,” Madrid’s manager told reporters following his side’s 3-0 win over Alaves , where the Brazilian wonderkid assisted the opener before producing a cool finish for his first Liga goal.
The 18-year-old attacker is set to play in his first Clasico on Wednesday, having been entirely left out of the matchday squad by Julen Lopetegui when Real last faced Barcelona in October. That result brought the end to Lopetegui’s brief stay at Santiago Bernabeu, but also ushered in a new beginning for Vinicius under Solari, who was promoted from Real Madrid Castilla to become head coach of the senior team.
Life under Lopetegui had been difficult for Vinicius, with the Basque manager’s treatment of the teenager even annoying the club’s top brass. The €45 million (£40.5m/$54m) summer acquisition was signed to be the future of the club, but his development was being hindered by Lopetegui, who would decide the day before matches whether to call Vinicius into the senior squad or else send him to Castilla.
He impressed with Solari’s reserve side, with four goals and an assist in five starts, but when he was called into the main Madrid squad, Lopetegui left him on the bench or introduced him late in games where he had no opportunity to make an impact. Many felt that he had served his apprenticeship well enough in the Segunda Division B, with Los Blancos even appealing a suspension earned while playing with Castilla in order to leave him eligible to play in El Clasico.
Lopetegui listened to the calls to promote him to the senior squad for that October clash against their rivals, but then did not name him on the bench as Real lost 5-1. Solari was installed as Lopetegui’s replacement and neither coach nor player have returned to the reserves since.
A strong start to life managing the main team saw the caretaker boss earn the right to become the permanent manager, while Vinicius was handed a role in the starting XI in the first game of the new era and has been heavily involved in the team ever since.
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Vinicius had played just 12 minutes over two games under Lopetegui, but completed the full 90 minutes of Solari’s debut in the dugout, providing two assists in the first leg of the Copa del Rey clash with Melilla. A few substitute appearances in La Liga followed before another dominant display in the return leg of the cup, where the Brazilian scored one and set up another in a 6-1 rout.
Wednesday’s trip to Camp Nou is in part thanks to Vinicius’ starring role in the cup, adding another goal and four more assists en route to the semi-final. He has also broken into the first team in the league. The 3-0 victory over Alaves was his fifth start in a row in La Liga, where he has now firmly established himself as one of Madrid’s most important attacking threats.
His speed and dribbling ability has been a key part in Real’s recent winning run, with Vinicius forming an excellent partnership with Karim Benzema in attack. Since Solari took charge, the Frenchman has played 1510 minutes, racking up seven goals and 11 assists, which averages as a goal contribution every 83 minutes.
Now, he is one of the first names on the teamsheet. Solari has a decision on who to play in attack each game, but the decision is whether he should use Gareth Bale or Lucas Vazquez alongside the now established Benzema and Vinicius.
Even without Benzema, Vinicius is in the line-up, playing through the centre against Real Betis when the Frenchman picked up an injury during the game. His ability to hold up the ball for team-mates and pick out the right pass is just as important as his skill at beating players or driving forward.
Next up for Vinicius is his first Clasico. Three months ago, he could not make the squad, but now he could be a crucial part of Real Madrid’s plan to defeat Barcelona. Despite being just 18, the former Flamengo forward is unfazed by the challenge.
“It does not scare me, I play in Madrid, in the best team in the world, I do not fear anything,” Vinicius said. “I play where the coach believes is better, I will do everything to help, on the right, the left or in the middle, I will continue working to win with Madrid.
“We have returned better in 2019. It is our best moment since the beginning of the season.”
Vinicius’ explosion is a big reason for that. And while he may not be scared of Barcelona, the Catalans should certainly be more than a little scared of him.