Racial abuse raining on him in Spain isn’t new. Atletico Madrid fans hung his effigy from a bridge last month. In Doha and earlier, he has been asked about extravagant after-goal celebrations, derision not really camouflaged in the question or comment. Through all this, “like dust”, Vinicius Jr rises.
Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise” and what Vinicius Jr faces are separated by over 40 years but even as bananas are thrown at him, even as the chant ‘you are a monkey’ courses through terraces, “like air”, Vinicius Jr rises. He is the most fouled player in Europe’s top five leagues (82). In the Champions League this season, he has the most goal attempts (28) and most shots on target (15). Adjudged the best player in Real’s fifth successful Club World Cup campaign, Vinicius Jr has 18 goals and nine assists for the club in all competitions in 2022-23 after 22 goals and 20 assists last term. He was why Liverpool failed to win a seventh European title last year and Real got their 14th. And it was his double that knocked Liverpool out in the quarter-final the season prior.
"Vinicius is the most decisive player in world football today," Real manager Carlo Ancelotti said at the news conference in Liverpool on Tuesday.
In the 5-2 win against Liverpool in the last 16 first leg clash, Vinicius Jr was directly or indirectly involved in four of Real’s goals. He scored two, assisted Karim Benzema for the fifth and it was for a foul on him that led to a free-kick for Eder Militao’s header which gave Real a 3-2 lead after they were 0-2 down by the 14th minute. This was the fourth straight double-leg game in the Champions League where Real had overcome a deficit of at least two goals. They have now beaten Liverpool six times in the last seven games.
“It was an historic win, mostly because if you consider where we played and how we started the game… But we never backed down and kept our cool, not panicked and we turned around a very difficult game,” said Ancelotti.
Between the third minute when Eder Militao found Vinicius Jr on the left and the sixth when Rodrygo did, Liverpool had the lead. Darwin Nunez had struck with a flick as audacious as Alessandro del Piero’s in the 1997 final of this competition. Anfield roared. It got louder when Mo Salah made the most of Thibaut Courtois’ clanger. On the back of two Premier League wins, two clean sheets, this seemed like Liverpool were turning the season around after starting 2023 with two league losses. Vinicius Jr had other ideas.
Still, when he pirouetted past Jordan Henderson, it didn’t look like Alisson’s goal was in danger. Blocking the route were four Liverpool players but they were all frozen in a moment’s indecision and that was all Vinicius Jr needed to arrow into the far corner. As television cameras showed Juergen Klopp and Alisson stressing on the importance of closing down almost in unison, Vinicius looked into the night sky. Real were trailing so no happy-feet gestures.
Before he had equalised – like Salah, Vinicius did not give up and could capitalise on a rare error from Alisson – Eduardo Camavinga had found him on the break leading to the Brazilian gliding away. After it was 2-2, Vinicius’ pass to Rodrygo needed a desperate slide from Andy Robertson. Another Vinicius effort, similar to the one that fetched the first goal, could have got Real the lead in the first half but Alisson got a hand.
Through the game, Vinicius Jr was ghosting into areas, a dazzling white shirt under bright white lights. Liverpool had prepared for him alright with Fabinho and Jordan Henderson dropping in to support Trent Alexander-Arnold. They channeled most of their attacks down the right in the first half; Alexander-Arnold, you could say, had a good game. But Vinicius, the reds couldn’t contain.
He was at hand to receive the ball from the move that fetched Benzema his first of the night. Just as he was moments later in case Real’s No. 9 needed help. And he had drifted inside to create a pass option which Luka Modric took after warding off Stefan Bajcetic. Vinicius then laid it off for Benzema who produced a calm finish. This was the first time Liverpool had shipped five at home in a European competition.
Their disintegration complete, Klopp smiled wanly as Vinicius Jr and Benzema hugged. The 22-year-old Brazilian has come a long way since the 2020-21 Champions League game against Borussia Moenchengladbach when Benzema was heard asking teammates to not pass to Vinicius Jr as “he’s playing against us.”
“There is no player with this continuity of action. He (Vinicius Jr) doesn't stop and keeps going. I hope he can continue like this,” said Ancelotti. The only player younger than Vinicius Jr to have scored a brace at Anfield? Johan Cruyff.
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