Seventeen minutes was all it took.
Struggling in their first La Liga outing since the previous week’s 5-1 Clásico drubbing at the hands of Barcelona, temporary Real Madrid manager Santiago Solari sought a way of breaking the deadlock against the Bernabéu’s stubborn visitors Real Valladolid. He turned to 18-year-old Vinícius Júnior.
With just 17 minutes to play and Madrid showing no signs of having turned a corner in the immediate aftermath of previous coach Julen Lopetegui’s sacking, the Brazilian attacker got to work.
Time was short, but the teenager was an increasingly commanding presence. His diligence in tracking back saw him aid his side’s efforts to regain the ball when out of possession and his pace and fleetness of foot helped the home side move swiftly up the pitch.
Ten minutes after coming on, Vinícius broke Valladolid’s resistance. Sweeping in from the left flank, his speculative effort was deflected into the bottom corner. In truth, he was lucky to be credited with the goal as his shot was heading out for a throw-in, but his adventure and the way he offered something different to his out-of-ideas colleagues was rewarded.
He played a part in Madrid’s second, too. It was the teenager who fed Karim Benzema before the Frenchman was felled in the box. Captain Sergio Ramos converted the 88th-minute penalty, sparing the European champions’ blushes and securing a crucial, hard-fought win.
Vinícius didn’t misplace a pass in what was his third and longest appearance for Madrid to date – his first two outings combined for just 12 minutes of football – and his ability to follow tactical instructions will have pleased Solari greatly.
But what was most impressive is how the 18-year-old, who is still and will continue to be a regular feature for Madrid’s Castilla second-string, appeared completely in sync with his team-mates; he was a seamless injection into the side’s attacking interplay.
His work-ethic and daring endeared him to the expectant Bernabéu crowd, and, as reported by Marca in the days after the game, Vinícius won the respect of his colleagues through his performance, with the youngster now viewed as a bona fide first-teamer. All in the space of just 17 minutes.
As Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe outlined in an episode of The Spanish Football Podcast in which he reviewed the game, Vinicíus, though no fault of his own, had become somewhat of a political pawn at the club this season; his lack of game time is supposedly one of the main reasons the Madrid hierarchy lost patience with Lopetegui.
Solari, though, appears to have more faith in the youngster than his predecessor, as evidenced by his post-match comments, which simultaneously sought to temper expectations of Vinícius while also extolling his natural gifts.
“[Vinicius] is still very young,” Solari said. “He has great potential for his age, his football transmits joy. He already has things that it are impossible to learn. When it is inevitable for a player to play, as he is breaking through everything, then he plays, nobody can stop that. But there is a natural, gradual process.”
There were words of caution for Vinícius from another former Bernabéu prodigy. Javier Portillo was a long striker rising through the club’s youth ranks in record-breaking style in the early 2000s, likened to club legend Raúl for his lethal scoring touch.
Portillo made a bright start at senior level, netting 14 times in the 2002/03 season, before quickly fading from view.
“Vinicius’ situation and the situation I had are similar,” Portillo told Cadena Ser.
“People coming up always have problems when it comes to making a space in the first team. Real Madrid don’t wait for anyone. It’s difficult to become part of a squad filled with Galácticos. I would tell Vinicius to keep calm.
“It’s normal for fans to get excited, as they see that he is a different player, but he is only 18 years of age.”
Madrid fans can be forgiven for getting a little carried away with Vinícius, though, this teenage prospect who has long elicited excited whispers.
As he bowed before them after scoring his first senior goal in Europe, the Bernabéu welcomed its newest hero, the man they hope can guide them out of a rare dark period and transmit more timely joy.