Among the many stories in Saturday’s Champions League final—Mo Salah seeking “revenge”, Karim Benzema’s battle with Virgil van Djik, whether Thiago, if he plays, can impose himself in a midfield that also has Luka Modric —the match-up between Vinicius Jr and Trent Alexander-Arnold could be the most intriguing.
On the left of Real Madrid’s attack will be the 21-year-old Brazilian who is finally living up to the promise he showed in the 2017 South American under-17 championships, winning the MVP and the Golden Boot. “He has everything to become a high-performance player, to represent the national team and play for big European clubs,” Brazil’s under-17 coach Carlos Amadeu had then said. Amadeu’s Brazil finished third in the under-17 World Cup but India missed seeing ‘Vini’ as Flamengo, having already agreed to a €45m with Real Madrid once he turned 18, didn’t let him travel.
On the right side of Liverpool’s defence is the full-back who also has 12 assists, the most for the club after Salah’s 13 in the Premier League. So will Alexander-Arnold curb his sorties in Paris? Or will he do it even more to peg Vinicius in Real’s half? Will Liverpool get midfield cover for the right-back, allowing him to play his natural game? Is it possible that Real Madrid will try and spread chaos in Liverpool’s defence with backward runs as Benzema often does and Luka Modric did against Manchester City? When Modric took Ruben Dias with him, he created space for Vinicius to whoosh past Fernandinho and score a goal that encapsulated speed and skill in equal measure. What is clear is that Alexander-Arnold won’t be a Juan Foyth, the Villarreal right-back who man-marked Vinicius in a 0-0 draw last September.
Vinicius scored twice when Real beat Liverpool 3-1 in the second leg of the 2021 Champions League quarter-final. The first was from a Toni Kroos long ball targeting the right side of Liverpool’s high line; Vinicius showing superb technique to chest it forward while in a defensive sandwich between Alexander-Arnold and Nathaniel Phillips. Before that, Ferland Mendy had gone past Alexander-Arnold and found Vinicius whose header didn’t miss by much. Even Real’s second goal came from a ball aimed at Mendy which Alexander-Arnold couldn’t clear, heading instead into the Marco Asensio’s path.
The left side has been crucial to Real Madrid’s attack this term and that has a lot to do with Vinicius’ form. He is part of the core that helped Real win La Liga comfortably and pull off serial Houdini acts in the Champions League. When Real play a low block, it lets Vinicius use his pace; he has a motorbike in his boots, manager Carlo Ancelotti has said. But the canny Italian has not shoehorned them into playing one way. Real had the most passes per sequence in La Liga and were among the last three teams in going direct. So, when Real press aggressively, it is Vinicius who leads the pack.
It didn’t begin this way. Like most of his past three seasons during which he has also struggled with a knee injury, Vinicius started on the bench this term. Ancelotti using Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard showed that like his predecessor Zinedine Zidane, the Italian wasn’t sure of Vinicius. Last term, Vinicius was averaging one goal-worthy chance in three games and a goal in every five. He was getting into the right positions but the finishing lacked finesse. During the 2020-21 Champions League game against Borussia Moenchengladbach, Benzema was heard telling Mendy to not pass to Vinicius as “he’s playing against us”.
The player Real bought after he had only 17 minutes of first team action bore derision with maturity and kept working hard. The brace against Levante in August was the first sign of it coming together. “He has learnt to finish in a week,” said television pundit Jorge Valdano. Two goals against Elche, the winner against Sevilla and it’s been highlights reel material since. Vinicius’ 27 goal contributions (17 goals, 10 assists) in La Liga is second only to the phenomenal Benzema’s 39 (27 goals).
“Since I arrived at Madrid, I always said there would come a moment when I would score lots of goals in a row. I have felt good since this season started, with the confidence of the coach and the staff,” Vinicius has said. He could feel better by the time it ends.