Real Madrid’s €45m wonderkid Rodrygo single-handedly saving Brazil at South American U-20 Championship

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The Santos youngster, just weeks past his 18th birthday, was involved in all his side's goals as they staggered into the final phase

When the South American Under-20 Championship rolls around every two years, Brazil are always title contenders.  

Even after a disastrous 2017 campaign, normal service was expected to resume in Chile this month.

However, a Selecao side shorn of star Real Madrid forward Vinicius Junior – deemed too important to his club's Liga campaign to be released for international duty – have had to rely on a future Merengue hotshot to negotiate the first round.

Rodrygo has appeared only in fits and starts so far in Chile, but that has been enough to take Brazil through to the final stage and remain in contention for the title or, at the very least, a spot in May's World Cup.

Having turned 18 at the very start of the tournament, Rodrygo has been involved in all three goals Brazil have scored so far at the competition.

After a subdued debut as his side played out a 0-0 stalemate against Colombia, he stepped up a gear to overcome 2017 World Cup runners-up Venezuela.

The clash was tense and even throughout, with both teams enjoying spells of dominance. But it was just when the Vinotinto were looking most dangerous that the teenager struck.

In the first half he timed his run perfectly to meet Marcos Antonio's incisive pass and blasted past the helpless Carlos Olses to open the scoring, giving Brazil the breathing space needed after more than two hours without finding the net.

Even better was to come after the break. With Venezuela turning the screws in search of an equaliser, Rodrygo effortlessly turned inside his marker to make space, before beating Olses once again with his right foot.

Rodrygo Brazil PS

Samuel Sosa hit back with a fine free-kick, but Rodrygo's double left his side just enough margin to buckle down and take a crucial 2-1 victory, the only blip for the Vinotinto, who came out on top in their other three matches in Group A.

Brazil, nevertheless, continued to struggle for form and consistency, dominating possession but carving out few chances of note.

Rodrygo was equally guilty as the rest of his team-mates in failing to hit a single shot on target from 19 attempts in a 1-0 defeat to hosts Chile, a result that left them needing at least a draw against Bolivia to assure qualification.

While the future Madrid striker did not trouble the scorers, he made another decisive intervention.

With 25 minutes gone he once more streaked through the middle, forcing Walter Antelo to slice him down and concede a penalty. Flamengo's Lincoln stepped up and converted in unorthodox style, sending Brazil through to the final stage, which kicks off on Tuesday with a game against Colombia.

At just 18, Rodrygo is young even for the U-20 category, and has demonstrated on occasion that he struggles to impose himself against physical defences. But he also shows remarkable maturity for a kid of his age.

“Wearing the No. 10 shirt for Brazil is always important and it adds responsibility on me,” he said following the Venezuela win.

“I know I have to be decisive and in this game my team-mates helped me a lot in order to achieve that.”

Rodrygo PS

With just three goals in their four outings so far, the entire Brazil squad must lift their game for the final stage. Four of the six participants go through, but it will not be easy by any means.

Stubborn Colombia kick off a gruelling run of five games in 12 days for the young Selecao, in temperatures that are likely to reach the mid-30s under the summer sun of Rancagua.

After the Cafetero, Brazil face a rematch with dangerous Venezuela, who have kept the core of the squad that finished second in the 2017 U-20 World Cup; Uruguay and Ecuador then follow before they conclude their campaign against similarly talent-packed yet under-achieving Argentina on February 10.

Two years ago, a side containing talents like new Milan signing Lucas Paqueta, current Everton star Richarlison and on-loan Manchester City promise Douglas Luiz were humbled at the same stage, winning just once and finishing outside the World Cup qualification places.

For 30 years from 1981 to 2011 – their last South America win, inspired by the deadly duo of Neymar and Lucas Moura – the Selecao never failed to make at least the top three in the competition: since then, they have only managed to make a single World Cup, even suffering the ignominy of a first-round exit in 2013.

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Therefore, Rodrygo, Lincoln and Co. have an extra responsibility to reverse that awful recent record and put Brazil back amongst the world's best at youth level.

It is a tall order. Just like Argentina, who went through with an even worse record in Group B, the Canarinha is a walking bullseye for the rest of the continent, who revel in bringing the two football aristocrats to their knees.

Rodrygo must build on his early promise in Chile and show why both Real Madrid and Brazil have put so much faith in his undoubtedly fantastic ability.

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