“Vinícius has a motorbike beneath his boots,” Carlo Ancelotti said last week. What the Real Madrid manager didn’t know was that he has a traction engine down there too. But late on Sunday night there it was, when they needed it most. Madrid were entering the 87th minute against Sevilla, the score even and a place at the top awaiting the winner, when a long ball from Eder Militao dropped from the sky by the left touchline. Vinícius chested past Lucas Ocampos, controlling and coming inside in one move, dropped his shoulder, went beyond Gonzalo Montiel and sent the ball tearing through the air and Yassine Bono’s hand into the far corner, the Bernabéu exploding.
Four touches is all it took; four touches and then that. “The perfect hit,” Emilio Butragueño called it. “An extraordinary, fantastic goal, incredible,” Ancelotti said. It had all happened so fast. Suddenly, there was Vinícius dancing with the corner flag, teammates running to catch up. He pointed at the badge, at himself and gestured to calm down, as if that was going to happen. The place was going wild. In the aisles and by the exits, where fans had gathered for a quick getaway, they decided they weren’t going anywhere yet. They had an ovation to give. Below them, the manager pumped his fists and hugged his son. Asked what he was thinking when it hit the net, Ancelotti smiled: “That we could win.”
That hadn’t often looked likely. This was the season’s biggest game so far, first v third going into week 15, two contenders with only two defeats between them, the start of a run to define the title race: Madrid now face Athletic, Real Sociedad, Atlético and Athletic again before Christmas, while Sevilla play Villarreal, Athletic, Atlético and Barcelona. It was 1-1 when the ball dropped to Vinícius and although there was something inevitable about the ending, Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga had been sent on to seek a winner and Bono admitted that Sevilla “didn’t manage the final minutes well”, for much of the night Madrid had been grateful for a point, let alone a win, relieved not to be losing.
Rafa Mir had given Sevilla the lead then saw David Alaba clear off the line and Thibaut Courtois make an astonishing save. Lucas Ocampos probably should have got a penalty – “I’m an interested party, but that’s my view, it’s the view of anyone who sees it,” said sporting director Monchi – and he might have got a goal too, a lovely curler bouncing off the bar. He was everywhere and Sevilla were in control. Joan Jordan and Papu Gómez barely lost a ball; Fernando barely seemed to need to run. “They’re a very good team with a spectacular coach who I admire,” Casemiro said, and they were showing it.
But before half-time Bono let a long shot from Militao slip through his fingers and against a post, leaving Karim Benzema with an easy finish to equalise. The ball had moved in mysterious ways but it was a dreadful mistake, the Sevilla keeper admitting it had changed the game and conceding: “Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to catch it.” The second half was more even dramatic – Vinícius put one over and Marco Asensio bent wide – but it was still heading for a draw that Ancelotti admitted might have been “fairer” when Vinícius appeared to smash in the winner. When he was withdrawn, they stood to applaud, chanting: “Vini! Vini! Vini!”
Even then, it might have ended with a draw. In added time, Courtois made another superb save, from Thomas Delaney. “I think we can say we have a goalkeeper,” Ancelotti smiled afterwards, which was easier to do then; at the time, he stood and watched heart in his mouth as the ball bounced out and fell at the feet of Bono, five yards from goal. The goalkeeper scored for Sevilla last season but this time he couldn’t find what he was looking for. His feet, mostly: something strange happened, like his legs just stopped working or he had been tackled by a ghost, some invisible phantom footballer sending him tumbling to the floor, Vinícius’s rocket ultimately proving the winner.
This was the 13th consecutive time Sevilla had lost at the Bernabéu (last year’s 2-2 was at Valdebebas). They may never have been closer, yet as the chances slipped by it was easy to imagine that the game would too, the victory somehow simultaneously both improbable and inevitable. “One year, the run will end,” Mir said, shaking his head and muttering: “It’s a pity, it’s a pity. Now we have to clear our heads.”
That wasn’t easy. Julen Lopetegui felt the anger swelling inside, another opportunity lost, possible victory replaced by the feeling lingering that when it comes to it there’s something lacking. He wasn’t really in the mood for talking, but didn’t have much choice. “We’re sad, hurt and have a bitter taste because we don’t deserve to leave defeated,” he said. “When you have your foot up against Madrid’s throat you have to keep pressing. If you ease off, this happens. Everything that could go against us did.”
Vinícius especially. It was, Lopetegui said, “a golazo”, the kind of thing you couldn’t do anything about. Sevilla had twice as many shots on target than Madrid but none quite like that. “A golden missile,” Marca called it. “A grenade,” said El Mundo. “Not just a shot, a lightning bolt,” according to El País. Which isn’t what anyone expected from him but doing what no one expected is what Vinícius does now. “A year ago, it would have ended up bouncing around the Bernabéu car park,” wrote Roberto Palomar, who clearly hasn’t been for a while. A year ago, he might not even have tried it.
It hadn’t been Vinícius’s best performance – when he put a shot over rather than pass, Benzema had words – but a moment of brilliance had won a huge game, taking Madrid four points clear of Atlético and Real Sociedad, five over Sevilla,10 above Barcelona.
It also took Vinícius to nine league goals, 11 over all. He has seven assists. That’s not just more La Liga goals than last season already, it is more than in his entire Madrid career, more in 14 games than the previous 82. And if it wasn’t his best game this season, it might have been in previous campaigns, when he was sometimes held as a figure of fun, source of a million memes, a player who could exhilarate but also exasperate – in the same move. Famously, Benzema was caught on camera telling Ferland Mendy that Vinícius was playing for the other team and that it would be better not to give him the ball. Now he is possibly the best player in Spain, certainly the best Vini since Samways. Someone you give the ball to whenever you can.
When Vinícius scored in the clásico in March 2020, it came via a deflection. Some joked that was the only way it would come. More importantly, Gerard Piqué admitted he had invited Vinícius take the decision, wrongly judging that the best plan given the likelihood he would take the wrong one. That night helped Vinícius, a sense of liberation, and there were other moments too – against Liverpool he was superb, his finishing impeccable – but it is this season that he is really tearing through teams. In the latest clásico, you could feel the fear every time he set off.
Asked last week what has changed since the early days, Vinícius responded: “I was younger then.” It was a simple point, delivered neatly, but it was an important one too easily forgotten. “I came from Brazil, I had hardly played a year in the Flamengo first team, I came to the biggest club in the world and I was 18,” he added. “Now I’m better prepared technically and psychologically.” Watch up close and the acceleration is extraordinary, but it is the tranquillity that is new, the precision, reliability and consistency. The continuity too. Sunday night was his 18th consecutive start, fully backed by Ancelotti for a simple reason: he earned it.
You don’t ease off him now, safe in the knowledge that he’ll run out of pitch, slice the shot or choose the wrong option, and Gonzalo Montiel certainly didn’t on Sunday night. “People know he’s a top player now,” Casemiro warned afterwards. “But that’s what great players are: the slightest chance and it’s a goal.” Mostly, Montiel won the battle but when the ball came to Vinícius on the left with not much time left and many men and metres between him and goal, it ended up in the net and everyone erupted. “The goal is a symptom. It’s confidence,” Butragueño insisted. “Great players win games on their own.”
“He has something special in his feet and his physique,” Ancelotti said. “The surprising thing is that he showed a quality he hadn’t shown before. That’s another step towards being one of the best in the world.”