The first time Vinicius Junior played against Atlético Madrid, they bit him; the third time, he bit back. If he didn’t do it the second time, maybe that’s because he wasn’t given the chance. A lot has happened in five months – a lot has happened in five weeks in fact, things changing fast – and few embody that better than the Brazilian dashing past Barcelona on Wednesday night and Atlético on Saturday afternoon. “He’s just a kid; some of us could have children his age,” his manager said, but he led Real Madrid to a 3-1 win, only their second in 15 domestic derbies. They became the first team to win at the Wanda Metropolitano this season. Became candidates once more.
Back in early September, Vinicius played his second game in Spain, for Castilla, Real Madrid’s B team, in the country’s theoretically amateur, regionalised, 80-team Segunda División B. He scored twice in a 2-2 draw against Atlético B at their Cerro del Espino training ground. He also found Atlético’s captain Alberto Rodríguez Baró sinking teeth into his head, a look of bewilderment on Vinicius’s face as he sat on the grass trying to grasp what was going on. A €46m signing from Flamengo – his fee could cover the whole of Segunda B for a year – three weeks later, he was given his first team debut in the 0-0 draw against Atlético at the Bernabéu, the first footballer born since 2000 to play for Madrid. He had played four Spanish matches ever, and two of them were against his team’s city rival.
But if that seemed to be the start of something, it wasn’t yet. There was pressure to put Vinicius in, but the player who had been bitten still needed “cooking”, Julen Lopetegui said. That derby day he played just two minutes and he only got 10 more in the 1-0 defeat at Alavés. Lopetegui didn’t get much longer; it would be “madness” to sack him, Sergio Ramos said, but his position was weak and, after the 5-1 defeat at Barcelona, suffered with Vinicius sitting in the stands, he was sacked – 138 days after taking over.
Lopetegui’s replacement was Santi Solari, Vinicius’s coach at Castilla. He was only temporary, Madrid said, hopeful they could get something better, but 100 days on he is still there. More importantly, so somehow are Real Madrid. Vinicius is there too and those two facts may not be unrelated. By the end of Solari’s first game, he’d already played more minutes than in Lopetegui’s entire reign; by the time his third derby came, he had played 11 league games. He was starting his sixth match in a row in La Liga just as three days before he had started against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, ahead of Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Isco. The outstanding player in the country’s biggest game, now it was time for the capital’s biggest. A proper test for him and his team.
Outside the Metropolitano, Thibaut Courtois’s plaque revealed what this means: the former Atlético and now-Real keeper’s name was covered with mud, stickers and rubbish, beer cans, toy rats and the lid off a tin of M&S shortbread, the stag’s horns symbolising unfaithfulness. Inside, it was noisy, the place bouncing. When the teams were announced, the presence of five former Madrid players in the Atlético team didn’t mitigate the abuse of Courtois; when he appeared, it rained rodents, cuddly rats flying his way. Tackles flew too.
So did Vinicius, “earning his doctorate”, one report said. He set off fast in the clásico and set off fast now, running at Atlético at every opportunity, never more so than when he forced his side’s second goal, drawing José María Giménez in and escaping him, until the desperate Uruguayan brought him down. The initial foul looked outside the area – although Giménez admitted “my genitals then touched his heel” – but the penalty was given and Ramos scored it.
Casemiro had scored the opener, Antoine Griezmann had equalised and now Ramos made it 2-1, his 22nd successful penalty of 24. When Vinicius was withdrawn, applauded by the handful of supporters high in the corner behind the glass screen and the big nets, few could understand it. But with Real under pressure his replacement settled a match marked by VAR in which two goals – one given (Griezmann) one not (Morata) – and two penalties, one given (Vinicius) one not (Morata) – were subject to revision, 67,752 people left in suspended animation. Bale got his 100th Madrid goal to make it 3-1 and end the contest, celebrating with a “sleeve-cutter”. For the uninitiated, that’s a Spanish “Up Yours”, which suggests he is integrating after all, but which he executed considerably worse than the shot, which suggests he is not.
Victory saw Madrid, ninth when Solari took over, climb above Atlético to second, and Barcelona’s 0-0 draw at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday put them “only” six points behind. The clásico is three games away – still an obligation, but maybe an opportunity too. In a Freudian slip during a recent interview, Toni Kroos said Madrid were still in two competitions, but it looks more like three now. “Hay Liga” has made a comeback – “there is league”. AS even dusted off another old favourite, the cagómetro: the crappingyourselfometer. “Barcelona are scared,” its cover said, pushing it a bit. Six points is still quite a lead, and it’s effectively seven because of head-to-head. It also grew this weekend: from five ahead over Atlético to six over Madrid. It’s also one point better for Madrid than it was the day Solari took over. But it’s natural that this threat feels more real. Not least because this latest shift has happened so quickly.
The turnaround was not immediate with Solari, who took over in October. Just six weeks ago, he suggested that draws should not be underestimated following a 2-2 with Villarreal and his point was proven when, two days later, Madrid were beaten by Real Sociedad. At that moment, 10 points behind, it was over for them – and, it seemed, for him. They were no longer ninth but the gap to the top had widened and if results had improved compared to under Lopetegui, performances hadn’t.
Since then, Madrid have won five league games in a row and scored 14, compared to 26 all season up until then. They’ve won eight and lost one in 10 – a Cup second leg that didn’t matter. This was supposed to be the hardest month, but it has brought a better Madrid. They scored two at Betis and against Sevilla, three against Alavés, four at Espanyol. They scored three at Atlético, who had let in four home goals all season. Before that they drew in Barcelona. “Madrid silenced the Camp Nou and the Metropolitano in four days,” cheered AS’s mad Madridista Tomás Roncero. That means something – and not just that he still hasn’t worked out where the volume button is on his remote. “They were better than us,” Diego Simeone admitted on Saturday. The headlines agreed: “Madrid are flying,” said AS; “Madrid reach altitude,” said El País. “Madrid are back,” was Marca’s verdict. Just at the right time; just about the time they always are.
Physically, Madrid are in much better shape. Though intangible, mentally, they are too and it is tempting to see Vinicius as the beginning of that, Jorge Valdano describing him as the kid who opened the window and let the air in. Naturally enough for an 18-year-old, he can be erratic, but he has four goals and six assists in all competitions and is evolving fast. “He gives us freshness and daring,” Solari said weeks ago now, and that has proven contagious.
Solari has given them that too. A man always prepared for management, an “inexperienced” coach with ample experience, he has astutely moved towards meritocracy and youth, a quicker more dynamic approach. Vinicius, Sergio Reguilón, and Marcos Llorente have all had opportunities they didn’t get before, while Lucas Vázquez is indisputable: “He has the qualities I admire in Spaniards: solidarity and bravery,” Solari said, and he could have been talking about himself, the man who didn’t fit the Galácticos policy but did fit their team. Meanwhile, some of those who might have considered their place guaranteed – Isco, Bale, Marcelo – have found to the contrary. Luka Modric, Ramos, Kroos and Karim Benzema have all taken a significant step forward too, as tends to happen at this time of year; Madrid’s pre-season is over, just in time for Europe. The question now is whether it is in time for the league too.