Vinicius Junior's sparkling 24-karat goals at Levante in LaLiga on Sunday were so stunning it was easy to be distracted from their beauty.
It would be easy to focus on the clinical wins, but it would be foolish to ignore the dramatic performance of Vinicius, who came to the rescue of his sinking team and scored two career-best goals in just 26 minutes. (Stream the replay on ESPN+ U.S.).
It would also be normal to mention that if any of the modern, great, elegant strikers -- Didier Drogba to Thierry Henry, through Ronaldinho and Ronaldo Nazario -- had produced identical results, we would have raved about them, about how devastating footballers they were, without provisos, with no "but ..." hovering above the air." This is Vinicius.
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It doesn't take a Spaniard to see the smug, dull-minded campaign against him waged by certain parts of Spain's soccer media. He's silly; that he doesn't have a clue when it comes down to the "killer moment". He's all piston-legs with no winning psychology. The Brazilian kid, just 21 years old, has been repeatedly portrayed as a one trick pony. His trick isn’t that great anyway. He has been discredited, undervalued, and treated as though his feelings, ambition, work ethic, and Teflon-tough mentality are mere flotsam.
His notable character traits were irrelevant in comparison to the fancy, snide adjectives, which could be conjured up with faint praise when he contributed successfully, or unleashed mercilessly whenever (or if?) he overran a potential assist or micro-missed making the right decision as to whether he was facing an assist or passing chance.
This is a drum that I have no regrets beating for several years. But don't let your eyes, constructive or critical, get distracted by the incredible quality of those goals at a hot and heated Levante on Sunday. The most remarkable thing about this young Brazilian isn’t his ability to draw defenders at high speed and cut the ball past an approaching goalkeeper without any favorable angle. He can also use his boots' laces to lift a delicate ball into the corner for a point-saving brace.
It is truly amazing that so many people have taken such a long time to realize that Vinicius doesn't just have extraordinary talent, but he's also improving. His statistics are astounding, and he's really working hard at them.
Take this example as an example: Vinicius, aged 21, has assist- and goal-per-minute ratios for senior club football that are equal or better than those of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Take a moment to reflect on this. At 21 years old, Messi had scored 42 goals and provided 24 assists. It took him 7,369 minutes to complete this feat in Barcelona colours. Ronaldo, at the same time, had scored 27 goals and provided 27 assists in 9,552 minutes while playing for Sporting Lisbon.
At that point in their careers, those two were being discussed in quiet terms. They were phenomenon in the making. Messi was not subject to any criticism, and Ronaldo was criticized for his love of a step-over as much as a cross or goal. His manager at United Sir Alex Ferguson was already saying that he had never seen anyone more brave in drawing and taking tackles than George Best.
Vinicius has a lot of fun and proves his critics wrong every time he has a chance to play for Real Madrid. He should be an automatic starter at this point. Eric Alonso/Getty Images
Vinicius is a subject that requires reverence and patience you can't even smell. It's surprising that he hasn’t taken a stand against his knee-jerk critics, considering his achievements at this age. He is the much-criticized man who wears Madrid's No. 20 shirt has scored 31 goals for Flamengo (Messi 42), while he has assisted 28 more (Messi 24 Cristiano 27). He took him 9.007 minutes to complete the task in Brazil and Spain (Messi 7.369, Cristiano 9.552).
The Brazilian's situation is even more complicated, and I think this is an important context. He's made that return across two continents, which is not something Messi and Ronaldo can claim. He's had seven managers to prove him to them, including Julen Lopetegui who didn't trust him in a single match. In his early years of seniority, Ronaldo only worked with Ferguson and Laszlo Boloni, while Messi was only able to coach the first team under Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona.
Vinicius, who is young and creative, has had to endure seven coaches from six different countries (Argentine, Colombian and French), and has learned the hard way that trust, continuity and development, advice, tactical, and strategic equilibrium are all more important than Messi and Ronaldo.
Remember that some of his goals or assists came in empty stadia during the pandemic -- something they, as both men, considered all-time greats, had to endure while playing in foreign countries like Vinicius.
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Vinicius vented some of his frustrations with the club in March. Vinicius recalled how Pele said that winning was more like a relief than it was a true joy.
Vinicius said to El Pais, "That's because we're under pressure." "That's worse than anywhere else here, the greatest club of all time." It doesn't matter if you're Sergio Ramos, a veteran here, or Rodrygo, Ferland Mendy or Rodrygo who are newer arrivals. Madrid is the only team that matters.
"When I arrived, they had won four of five Champions Leagues -- just like Cristiano, the greatest legend of the club's history was leaving. It was all complicated but I can manage the pressure.
Scoring a goal is more joy than relief. It's the result of all the hard work that we put in as a team. Goals give us confidence to take on more risk, to play better and to have fun. I find it easier to dribble one against one than to score -- I know my rivals will always be thinking about what I'm doing and where I'm taking him.
It is not necessary to draw quick conclusions about the statistical comparison between Messi and Ronaldo. Although the data will shock some of his intemperate critics it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Brazilian might follow in the footsteps of his peers from Argentina or Portugal, who have gone on the ripe old history books. These two were beyond extraordinary in their skill sets and turned out to be elite in their remorseless desire to improve, win, and in each case there was an "Eureka" moment where seasonal goal tallies between 15-25 suddenly shot up to new heights (peaking for Messi at 91 in one calendar year).
Vinicius and Benzema have a good relationship and demonstrated against Levante that Real Madrid has something special in the works. Eric Alonso/Getty Images
It would be unfair to expect that Vinicius will fulfill this kind of expectation. It's statistically impossible that another true scoring phenomenon such as those two will just happen while Messi or Ronaldo are still playing. Memo to self: Be on the lookout for Erling Haaland. We don't know yet what Vinicius will become. Is there no injury? Are you a ruthlessly ambitious player? You have been blessed with being a part of a dominant team for almost a decade. We don't know.
Let me tell you something shocking, in light his three goals in 55 LaLiga games this season (a significant improvement on his goal rate of one every 290 minutes throughout his career), Karim Benzema, Madrid's 2-0 defeat at half-time, was filmed on camera walking back onto Borussia Monchengladbach pitch and telling Mendy: "Don’t pass to this guy Vinicius." It's almost as if he is playing for the opposition!
It was an amazing moment. Treacherous, dangerous, mean-spirited. Vinicius, like us all, heard about it when the comments went viral. He was just 20 years old, struggling to find confidence, and only a few months into his rehabilitation from a severe ankle injury. He let the pain bounce off of him, which is amazing. There were no complaints, no physical retribution (the old school way of settling grudges from training grounds), and no change in form. He was not letting it get under him.
Vinicius, when asked about the incident a few months later after Benzema was assassinated, would respond in El Pais that "Karim" is amazing. Since I was a child in Brazil, I have been a huge fan of his. He is the best striker currently in the world. It's easy to play alongside Karim, it's almost like playing with an idol. He will constantly tell me what I should do and I know he enjoys having me as his teammate. I also listen because I know he is doing it to help me and to make me better.
Side note: I'm sure you knew this was coming: After Casemiro's stellar assist for Vinicius goal at Levante, who was it to set Vinicius up for his second goal with a nice, generous flick? It was one that showed Vinicius could produce something extraordinary. That's Monsieur Karim Benzema. He knows. I know it. It's not a secret.