El Clasico: Vinicius shining bright after bleak post-Ronaldo outlook

Vinicius Junior has flourished since Gareth Bale's injury-enforced absence and provided Real Madrid with a positive outlook.

Real Madrid forward Vinicius Junior's development so far has surpassed expectations and provides promise in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era.   -  Getty Images

Having invited a 13-year-old Neymar for a trial that lasted 19 days and included 27 goals during training sessions, losing out on his signature to arch-rival Barcelona in 2013 was gutting for Real Madrid president Florentino Perez.

Neymar going on to form one of the most formidable attacking units in the history of football alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at Camp Nou - they accumulated 364 goals in a combined 450 games - must have made Perez even more determined not to be beaten to the next South American prodigy.

It was therefore unsurprising that Madrid stumped up a reported €46 million to sign Vinicius Junior in May 2017, despite the 16-year-old Brazilian having made just two first-team appearances for Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo. There could be no doubt it was simply a bet on the future for Madrid, but it is already reaping the rewards.

With his slender frame and braces, Vinicius looked like someone closer to playing for their school team than in front of 80,000 people at the Santiago Bernabeu in the famous white shirt of Real Madrid. Yet his haul of seven goals in eight appearances during Brazil's victorious 2017 South American Under-17 Championship showed he possessed potential unmatched by his continental contemporaries.

With his slender frame and braces, Vinicius - who had made just two first-team appearances for Flamengo - looked like someone closer to playing for their school team than in front of 80,000 people at the Santiago Bernabeu.   -  AFP

 

An agreement to join Madrid did not make Vinicius a guaranteed starter at Flamengo, though. The pressure that comes with playing for one of the biggest clubs in a football-mad nation – and in a physical league against grown men – should not be underestimated. But after a steady introduction he locked down a first-team place and totalled 69 appearances for Flamengo before leaving in June 2018.

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Every step on the ladder

Madrid refused an option to keep the teenager on loan at Flamengo for another 12 months, clearly deeming he was ready for the switch to Spain. However, once again there was no rush on Vinicius. He started the season in the Castilla set-up with Julen Lopetegui seemingly not keen on the young attacker, but his undoubted talent soon did the talking.

 

Vinicius' direct, electric dribbling, nimble feet and quality from set-pieces made him a nightmare for defenders in the Segunda B. It all proved too much for Atletico Madrid B captain Tachi, who bizarrely took to biting Vinicius on the head after his double in the meeting between the rival clubs.

The departure of Lopetegui after a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Barca in October led to Santiago Solari being promoted to the top job from Castilla, and he has since made Vinicius an important part of his first team.

His rise has been rapid, but he has taken every step on the ladder. Such a path no doubt helped ensure that Vinicius flourished rather than folded, when he was tasked with filling in following an injury to Gareth Bale.

 

The successor

Vinicius' integration has been aided by a desire to learn Spanish since the move was announced two and a half years ago. When compared with Marcelo's comments this month that Bale only speaks English in the dressing room and communicates with the left-back via "gestures", the difference such an act can make is big.

As a relentlessly positive outlet on the wing, Vinicius has provided Real Madrid a much-needed boost.

Selected ahead of Bale for El Derbi against Atletico Madrid on February 9, the Brazilian teenager won the penalty that was converted by Sergio Ramos en route to a 3-1 victory. Four days later it was his piercing run down the left wing that carved apart the Ajax defence and enabled him to set up Karim Benzema for a thunderous opener in a 2-1 win in the first leg of the last 16 Champions League tie.

 

Vinicius will no doubt have been affected by the fire at Flamengo's youth team base that resulted in 10 players losing their lives. Turning in such displays in the days following that dreadful incident was a show of great maturity on his part. Now the 18-year-old is set to be called up by Brazil coach Tite for friendlies against Czech Republic and Panama in March.

While Madrid's hopes of beating Barca to top spot in La Liga are distant at best, Vinicius' development so far has surpassed expectations and provides promise in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era.

Bale was expected to be Ronaldo's successor at the Bernabeu, but a stellar performance from Vinicius in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal against Barca on Wednesday could see that view shift in the Brazilian's favour.

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