Real Madrid’s Vinícius showed Ballon d’Or quality vs. Barcelona


There was a day when Xavi Hernandez knew how to remove Real Madrid forward Vinícius Júnior from a Clasico. Sunday brought us the Clasico in which Vinícius has probably come very close to removing Xavi from his role as Barcelona coach.

That’s how much damage the utterly brilliant Brazil international did in winning the Spanish Supercopa for Los Blancos as he scored three goals in his side’s 4-1 win in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (stream the replay on ESPN+).

Human nature throughout the centuries has thrived on someone else’s misfortune: Cassandra in Greek mythology, the old hags who sat and knitted by the guillotines in revolutionary Paris, Shakespeare writing incessantly about the “fatal flaws” in the character of great men and women, almost every great opera ending in death and misery, decades of great blues music and almost every country-western song.

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So across the world’s media there will be a huge appetite for analysing, criticising and revelling in the pratfall of a true great — because Xavi suffered one of the most seismic reverses of his career in watching his team be thrashed in this first final of the Spanish season.

Headlines will gleefully speculate about him being sacked, opinion writers will thunder on about historic humiliation, entire salt mines will be emptied into the Catalan’s already bloody wounds. Schadenfreude — the German word for revelling in someone else’s downfall — will proliferate. However, that is categorically not the big story.

It’s easy to find failure, decline, and underachievement anywhere you look in the world right now. What’s harder to encounter is the kind of soaring, relentless and uplifting excellence that Carlo Ancelotti’s scintillating Madrid side showed in clinically destroying Spain’s reigning champions.

This final was a thrilling and chilling display of athleticism, sporting aggression, brilliant competitive vision, all-for-one team play and a demonstration that Ancelotti’s team is just warming up for what might well be several years of complete domination in Spain.

Back to our first point: An eon ago, when Xavi was quite patently proving to be precisely the right guy (at that time) to steer Barcelona away from the rocks, to infuse them with a new, steelier, competitive spirit and began to win regularly against Los Blancos, a main weapon was nullifying the brilliant Vinicius.

Ronald Araújo isn’t nicknamed “La Lapa” (The Limpet), but when he was first asked by Xavi to man-mark Vinicius, he did so with the verve of a 1970s Italian defender (it’s a false rumour that Vinicius opened his dressing room locker after a Clasico defeat and asked Araujo what he was doing in there).

In this latest chapter of their rivalry, one that originally looked so balanced in favour of the 24-year-old Uruguayan and now looks as if Vinicius not only has Araujo’s number but as if he’s relishing toying with him, the revenge dish was served so cold it had icicles hanging off it. Vinicius’ record against Barcelona is now: 9 wins, 1 draw, 6 losses, with 6 goals.

For the opening goal, Araujo was beaten. He was literally nowhere as Vinicius — half Usain Bolt, half Fred Astaire — sprinted past Barcelona’s asinine defending and danced around their helpless keeper. From the fastest hat trick of Vinicius’ life, to the moment Barcelona’s best defender was red-carded for kicking out at the Brazilian’s ankle — this was a no-contest.

The bones of it were that, firstly, Vinicius knew that he was athletically quicker than every single player in Barca colours. He knew it and he chose to impose it.

Secondly, Vinicius continued the trend of this season, which initially sat uncomfortably with him, that he is no longer an out-and-out left winger who cuts inside. He’s now a second striker in a 4-4-2 system. He has much more positional liberty, and he’s far harder for a guy like Araujo to man-mark (when previously the Uruguayan had the painted white line on the side of the pitch to help him in squeezing Vinicius’ potential space to run into).

That the last thing any rival should do is play a high defensive line when they are unwilling or unable to vindictively press the Madrid ball players who feed Vinicius — especially if the rival has a keeper who’s pretty allergic to performing the sweeper-keeper role and positioning himself on the edge of his own penalty area when the ball is in midfield.

Even though Vinicius sometimes played “second striker” through the middle at Flamengo, an entirely new version of this already phenomenal player is emerging.

He still has that box of tricks that he used as a winger. The elasticity of body, the outright chutzpah and daring to tell a defender he’s going one way, then go the other, and then double back again, the invention, the showboating, the fun. But if you watched his performance in Sunday’s triumph, there wasn’t really even a scintilla of “show.”

Vinicius was in Terminator mode: totally focused on timing his runs in behind, 100% intent on getting the win sealed as firmly and quickly as possible. This was the 23-year-old at his most ruthless. This was top-grade and it was awesome to watch, no matter how much Barcelona’s ineptitude helped the Brazilian.

The instant that Madrid sniffed out what Barcelona were doing defensively, they stifled the guffaws of disbelieving glee and set about utterly routing their historic rivals. Madrid’s passing, running, unselfish vision and finishing were all brutally unforgiving, and watching it all made for a great spectacle.

All season the song, for Ancelotti’s team, has been “Hey Jude.” And in fairness, Bellingham made a glorious assist for the first goal, was positionally superb throughout and helped try to extinguish the PedriFrenkie de JongIlkay Gündogan axis which, in a creative sense at least, might have given Barcelona a lifeline.

But from the 1960s peace and love chant of “Hey Jude,” we went to a slight corruption of Julius Caesar’s centuries-old statement of Veni Vidi Vici: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” This was Vini Vidi Vici: Vinicius came, he saw where Barcelona’s flaws were, and he conquered.

It’s not irrelevant to say that you can only wonder how much sweeter it was for him, here, to excel, score a historic hat trick, win the Supercopa, be named man of the match and to have to suffer none of the racist abuse which, sadly, we are trying to eradicate from football.

I’ve already written in the past couple of weeks in this space about the ominous (only for their rivals, joyous for Madridistas) growing momentum at Madrid. Brilliant coach retained for a couple of more seasons, a nucleus of fantastic, competitive, Madrid-obsessed young players most of whom are tied to the club for four or five more seasons and a stadium that is not only sensationally reconstructed but can add significantly to the club’s revenue generation. If either Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland is to be imminently added to this project, then heaven help Madrid’s LaLiga rivals.

Rodrygo was happy to play second fiddle to his long-time friend and national team colleague Vinicius but still managed to score and make it nine goals in his past 12 matches across all competitions.

Bellingham, too, played a far more anchored role, using the kind of positional intelligence and diligence which was so abysmally lacking in how Barcelona tried to contain their opponents. There’ll be matches where he bursts forward into spaces that Vinicius likes to occupy, and their process of latching on to one another’s timing and specialisms will continue. For those who think that Bellingham is increasingly a 2024 Ballon d’Or favourite I say: Fine. He’s utterly spectacular.

But Vinicius is in that mix. When Ancelotti feted his superstar after a 5-2 win at Anfield as “the most decisive player in the world” it only left room for him to augment that sentiment by calling Vinicius the best player in the world. Evidence grows that, one day, he’ll have to use that phrase.

As for Xavi and Barcelona: They gave a defensive performance of complete and utter ineptitude. They were slower mentally and physically than their rival, and compared to their big win in precisely this match a year ago, they have gone backwards by some significant margin.

Most of their players look as if either their athletic conditioning during training is insufficient, or the intensity of Barcelona training matches is too low or — and this is the one for president Joan Laporta to chew on — they’ve lost respect for or faith in their coach. In competitive aggression Madrid were ruthless, remorseless, clever and victorious; Barcelona were none of the above. It remains a fact that, for one of the first times this season, the Spanish champions played with oodles of creative flair, moved the ball cleverly to create openings and might have scored three or four times, compared to the seven or eight Madrid could have had.

If Laporta thinks that the return of João Cancelo and Iñigo Martínez will sort the appalling defending, then there was sufficient creativity from Xavi’s team to suggest that this season isn’t yet a write-off. If he believes that the team’s performance is specifically the coach’s fault, then there are some dire days of evaluation and decision making coming in the Camp Nou offices.





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