"I was not surprised as I know him since he arrived. I know how he plays football. But that a kid of 18 years old plays in this way does not often happen. He deserves a lot of praise.”
Real Madrid coach Santiago Solari reserved praise for Vinícius Júnior when speaking to ESPN following his side's 1-1 draw with FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the first leg of Wednesday's Copa del Rey semi-final.
The Brazilian starlet was chief tormentor on the night before he was replaced by Gareth Bale with 25 minutes left.
Vinícius played a significant part in the opening goal of the night. In what is quickly becoming his trademark, he cut in from the left flank and created enough space to whip a cross into the Barcelona penalty area. Karim Benzema did superbly well to bring the ball down and play it back across goal for Lucas Vázquez to nonchalantly pass the ball into the goal.
Vázquez’s goal, Benzema’s assist, but credit should go to Vinícius for creating the opportunity when it initially appeared as though he’d been forced wide. His direct nature, coupled with his aggressive dribbling, turned what could’ve been a wasted chance into a dangerous one. And Los Blancos reaped the rewards.
The Brazilian prodigy has gradually been eased into life in the Spanish capital but now, full of confidence, it’s time for Solari to unleash him.
Madrid travel to neighbors Atlético de Madrid on Saturday with more than just bragging rights to play for. Diego Simeone’s men currently hold a two-point lead over Real. A win for Solari and his team would see them leapfrog Los Colchoneros into second place in LaLiga and would extend their unbeaten run in all competitions to seven. With games coming thick and fast at this stage of the season, having momentum on your side is never a bad thing.
Real Madrid are without a LaLiga victory over Atléti for close to three years with Los Blancos last taking all three points from their rivals in 2016.
Many might expect the likes of Gareth Bale, Antoine Griezmann, Álvaro Morata or Benzema to be the difference-makers on the day. But it could well be the fearless youngster who steps up to take centre stage in the game neither team wants to lose.
Vinícius has the x-factor. He's a special talent with an abundance of ability. Furthermore, he's full of confidence.
Though the sample size isn't the greatest, totalling just over 1,000 minutes in LaLiga and the Copa del Rey, he's posting eye-catching numbers.
He's found the back of the net on four occasions and chipped in with six assists. He's averaging 7.09 dribbles – a number no player can better – completing 3.92, a ratio only two players surpass. He's touching the ball in the opposition's penalty area 7.31 times per 90, the third highest in the Spanish top flight.
All in all, he's a handful down the left-hand side and a tricky player to come up against. Atléti use Santiago Arias at right-back and the Colombian International is reliable and a consistent performer. He's in the top 20 for tackles attempted and tackles won in LaLiga. However, he is dribbled past on 0.7 occasions on a per 90-minute basis.
Vinícius isn't your stereotypical left winger so the Brazilian flyer is going to fancy his chances against the former PSV man if he does manage to isolate him in the left channel of the pitch. There are intriguing match-ups all over the pitch but the one to watch might just be Arias up against the Real Madrid No.28.
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