It appeared to be one of those fairy-tale football moments in the making that fans live (or die) for as Vinicius Junior, with a burst of the scintillating acceleration that is his hallmark, approached the AFC Ajax goal while donning Real Madrid colours in their Champions League clash. And then, there was an anti-climax.
The ball ended up in side netting as the player dropped to the ground in agony and had to leave the field. The ankle ligament injury this month has come as a cruel disruption in the soaring career of the 18-year-old Brazilian star who has already been compared umpteen times with arguably (did someone say Messi?) the GOAT " Cristiano Ronaldo.
The slender teenager has exceptional pace, balance, flair, technique, dribbling skills, and close control at speed, apart from substantial power, muscle, and trickery on the ball. No wonder Real forked out ¬45 million for him. However, experts have cited his shooting and goal-scoring as areas that need a step up.
"When he goes one on one, he can keep the ball under control and change direction, maintaining his acceleration and power " it's very impressive," Tite, manager of the Brazilian men's national football team, told the media. "When he's running with the ball, his markers usually drop deeper, because they don't want to take him on one on one."
While Real lost the match to Ajax in humiliating fashion and crashed out of the Copa del Rey at the semi-final stage, Vinicius was perhaps the lone bright spot for his side while he was on the field. Though he is cooling his heels right now, the teenager certainly has time on his side. However, when he returns, he'll have a different manager to impress with Zinedine Zidane taking over from Santiago Solari.
Real Madrid legend Michel Salgado is one of the many who feel the 18-year-old striker could be the next Cristiano Ronaldo in the making at the club.
"He's learning very quickly. When he's got the chance to go one on one, he's doing it. And he's choosing the right thing to do and the decision-making has been much better now and he's only 18 years old," he told the Khaleej Times. "It is not easy to come from Brazil at 18 and then make it through the first team and being a regular. So, it is great news for us, it is great news for the club, especially with (Cristiano) Ronaldo gone. He can now be the next Ronaldo at Real Madrid, the next big name at Real Madrid."
Vinicius, who comes from a poor family in Rio de Janeiro, saw his career take off in 2006, when his father took him to the branch offices of the Brazilian club Flamengo. Over the years, many have praised his eye for the final ball, and ability to provide assists to teammates, though he is also skilled enough in scoring goals himself.
He was just 16 and had played only a few games for Flamengo when Real decided to sign him up. The teen has scored twice in 13 games since becoming a regular starter. His first goal came against Alaves in La Liga Santander and the other against Leganes in the Copa del Rey.
"First Barcelona showed interest and then Real Madrid. We then visited the clubs. To look around and find out more about their projects," the youngster told Cadena SER. "Barcelona wanted to pay more, but I chose the best. The club with the best project. (Real stars) Marcelo and Casemiro spoke to me and helped me choose Real Madrid. I looked at what was best. Everyone in my family wanted me to play for Real Madrid and live in Madrid. From the start. My whole family is for Real Madrid, although my father is for VinÃcius FÃºtbol Club."
Vinicius made his debut for the Spanish giants on September 29 last year, when he came on in the 87th minute in a goalless draw against AtlÃ©tico Madrid, as he became the first-ever Madrid senior player to be born after the turn of the millennium.
The whirlwind striker has got first-team opportunities for Real at a challenging time when the club is struggling to come out of a slump and has seen managers come and go through the revolving door starting with Julen Lopetegui, followed by Solari, and now it is Zidane who's in charge.
Marcelo says he is happy to act as a mentor to his young Real teammate and fellow Brazilian.
"I'm helping Vinicius as much as I can. He's an amazing guy because he really listens and wants to learn. He's eager to pick up the language and start speaking Spanish. I enjoy writing things down for him to help him learn," he said in an interview. "Whenever a new player joins, they are always given a warm welcome and well received. There's a great sense of unity, we're like a family and they have taught me values and how to respect others."
Last month, Vinicius received a call-up to the Brazilian national team for the first time for friendlies against Panama and the Czech Republic. But he was replaced after injury played spoilsport.
"He's still very young, we need time to see the kind of player he will be but if he continues to play the way he is now he'll be a world-class player, no doubt," said former Real Madrid striker Fernando Morientes. "We should give him time though, you can't burden such a young player with too much responsibility, especially at a club like Real Madrid."
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