The rise of Vinicius Junior: Real Madrid winger shaking off the haters to pick up Ronaldo's Clasico mantle

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Vinicius Junior Real Madrid 2022-23
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The Brazilian is a very different player to the Portuguese, who set records that will likely never be broken, but his star potential is obvious.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi's last Clasico matchup was suitably exciting. Both living legends scored, Sergi Roberto was sent off, and Messi curled one just outside the post late in the second half.

It embodied 10 years of fierce rivalry, with the two best in the world leading their teams to a gripping stalemate.

Since the Portuguese left, though, the Clasico has felt a bit stale, especially from a Madrid perspective.

Los Blancos have lacked the aura of inevitability that Ronaldo exuded, the singular figure who could take over a game with both on-field talent and irresistible swagger. Ronaldo was, in other words, actively feared.

Since he left, Madrid has continued to field its fair share of world-class players.

Karim Benzema is a Ballon d'Or-winning striker. Luka Modric is one of the best midfielders to ever play the game. But neither have reached the stratosphere of superstardom in which Ronaldo resided.

In Vinicius Junior, though, Madrid might just have a talent, and indeed a character, capable of reaching that level of adoration.

The Brazilian has become as effective as he is exciting, a must-watch player for not only his flair but also his killer instinct.

And, on Thursday, he gets another chance to show that he is now the Clasico's main attraction...

  1. A Clasico debut to excite
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    A Clasico debut to excite

    Vinicius is so impactful now that it's easy to forget that the Real Madrid team he walked into was in a state of crisis.

    The club went through three managers in the 2018-19 season and stumbled to a third-place finish in La Liga. At the beginning of the campaign, Vinicius was merely a youth standout on the verge of the first team, awaiting his chance.

    Once worked into the side, the Brazilian sparked a flat-lining season into life with his pace and creativity.

    He was accordingly impressive in his first Clasico, running Nelson Semedo ragged and proving crucial in the build-up to Madrid's opening goal.

  2. 'On my mother's life, he is playing against us!'
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    'On my mother's life, he is playing against us!'

    That contest did little to distract from Vinicius' obvious attacking flaws, though.

    Although Vinicius was clearly an immense talent, he missed chance after chance, igniting a media circus as to whether he was truly good enough to don a Madrid kit.

    Everything seemed to reach a breaking point in October 2020.

    A camera in the tunnel of Borussia Monchengladbach's stadium picked up a conversation between Benzema and Ferland Mendy. Although the audio was poor, Benzema discouraged the left-back from passing to his teammate: "Don't play with him. On my mother's life, he [Vinicius] is playing against us!"

    Benzema didn't pass once to Vinicius in the second half, and Madrid scraped a 2-2 draw.

    Vinicius's morbid run only got worse after that episode. He became the object of Madridista's ire for months, criticised for his apparent disconnect with Benzema, and often blamed for Madrid's poor attacking showings.

    It was, perhaps, an unfair assessment. Although the 20-year-old was certainly raw, he possessed game-changing pace and, at the very least, gave Real some dynamism in the final third.

    Still, Madrid is a results-driven proposition, and Vinicius had little statistical backing for his showing.

    At one point during the 2020-21 campaign, he went nearly five months without scoring before finally finding the back of the net with a last-minute equaliser against Real Sociedad.

  3. The turnaround
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    The turnaround

    But things would soon change.

    The first signs of what Vinicius could be at his best came in Europe, against one of his now-favourite opponents.

    When Liverpool travelled to Madrid in the last 16 of the 2020-21 Champions League, they were in the midst of a woeful period.

    Virgil Van Dijk was out for the season with a severe knee injury, both Mo Salah and Sadio Mane had been surprisingly inconsistent in front of goal, and emergency centre-back signing Ozan Kabak had been a disaster.

    But that game isn't remembered for Liverpool's mounting injury list. It's instead recalled with fondness by Real fans as Vinicius' first big European showing, a performance that actually raised eyebrows right across the continent.

    The Brazilian winger attacked the space in behind Liverpool's high line. It was a different kind of display from a player that had so often hugged the touchline or come inside to involve himself in build-up.

    Instead, he stayed high up the pitch, asked only to try to beat players one-on-one. It worked wonderfully for Madrid, with Vinicius scoring twice and assisting a third to round off a 3-1 win.

    He was dynamic, devastating, and, crucially, clinical.

  4. What now?
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    What now?

    Since then, his star has only risen. And it's been clear with every big game how much he has grown.

    First, it was Manchester City in the 2022 Champions League, when Vinicius burned Fernandinho on the wing and scored to inspire a historic comeback.

    Then, it was Liverpool in the final, with the winger sneaking in at the back post to win Madrid's 14th European Cup.

    Liverpool were victims again just last week, as Vinicius scored two and set up a third to complete a rout at Anfield.

    But for all of his quality and big game moments, Vinicius hasn't quite touched superstardom.

    Certainly, a lot of it has to do with the constant noise surrounding him.

    Vinicius has been the subject of racist chants from fans and treated poorly by referees who often refuse to protect him from overzealous defenders. Media members have even openly questioned if Vinicius deserves the abuse he so regularly receives.

    There is so much analysis of Vinicius the character, that his immense footballing talent is sometimes skipped over.

    His goals are pushed out of the narrative because he danced after scoring. His flicks and tricks are forgotten because he got clattered after completing them.

    It's impossible to be just a footballer. It's even harder for Vinicius. So much of his footballing skill is looped into his identity, his style, his distinctly Brazilian way of playing the game.

    But when Clasicos come around, it's the actions on the pitch that really matter.

    And in these moments, superstars are forged. Vinicius could be the next one, Real's next Ronaldo, their new go-to-guy in the biggest game in world football.