'Goals and sweat' - Vinicius becoming the Ronaldo replacement Real Madrid were hoping Hazard would be

Vinicius Junior Eden Hazard Zinedine Zidane Real Madrid GFX
The Belgian was meant to finally fill the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo but now it seems that the 20-year-old Brazilian is more fit for the job

Despite shelling out €45 million (£41m/$53m) on a teenage Vinicius Junior, nobody at Real Madrid expected the Brazilian to become such an important player quite so quickly.

The fact he has become one of Zinedine Zidane's most important players, thus, underlines that something has gone wrong elsewhere.

Vinicius, who is still only 20, is one of Madrid’s main attacking weapons, having now effectively taken Cristiano Ronaldo's role on the left-hand side of the attack.

Eden Hazard was, of course, supposed to be the Portuguese winger's replacement but the Belgian's form and fitness issues mean that Zidane is still unable to rely on the former Chelsea star to play or, indeed, perform.

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Hazard is Madrid's record signing and, theoretically, in his prime. In an ideal world, he would be winning games for Real; that responsibility, though, is instead falling on Vinicius.

In the 1-0 win over Real Valladolid on September 30, the Brazil international was in the right place at the right time to stab the ball home in the 65th minute, settling an extremely tight game in the hosts' favour.

Four days later against Levante, Vinicius finished well to put Madrid ahead again, before Karim Benzema’s late strike sealed a 2-0 win.

The Frenchman has not been in good goalscoring form at the start of the season, piling even more pressure on Vinicius to produce something in the final third.

Madrid-based newspaper Marca labelled him Real's "new talisman" and the "perfect partner in crime" for Benzema. It's quite the rapid rise in importance.

In his first years at Madrid, playing Vinicius was a trade-off between benefitting from his speed, enthusiasm and energy, and suffering from his profligacy and naivety.

Now, though, the rewards are increasing and the risk is decreasing.

In his first 26 games for the club, Vinicius hit 75 shots at goal and scored just three times. And yet, in those matches, he was also the brightest spark in an otherwise dour team. He was the green shoots of hope growing out of the rubble of Real's depressing 2018-19 campaign, in which Julen Lopetegui and then Santiago Solari were both sacked before Zidane returned to salvage a sinking ship.

Vinicius is still only on the verge of unearthing his full potential, because if he can develop yet greater consistency in front of goal, he can become a lethal weapon for Madrid for years to come.

Against Cadiz last weekend, with Madrid trailing 1-0 at home, he had the chance to be his team's hero for the third game running.

Toni Kroos pinged in a cross from the left and Vinicius stole in to direct a header at goal, with Cadiz goalkeeper Jeremias Ledesma caught darting off his line.

However, his effort spun wide of the far post instead of sinking into the empty net. It was a costly miss and showed that Vinicius still has much to work on.

However, although Zidane’s face betrayed the frustration he felt at seeing a gilt-edged chance to equalise squandered, the coach rightly applauded the youngster's effort.

The Frenchman is well aware that Vinicius is a raw but exciting talent. Zidane also knows that his only option is to keep encouraging the youngster, to coax as much out of him as possible, given Madrid are unlikely to make a move in the market until next summer, and Hazard is presently sidelined with yet another muscular injury.

Vinicius Junior Zinedine Zidane Real Madrid GFX

The early signs this season are certainly encouraging. Vinicius is not only improving his finishing. He's also applying himself more in defence, tracking back well and regularly.

“I liked his effort in defence," Zidane said after watching Vinicius win the ball back five times during the Clasico in March. "To be a solid side, we have to defend together."

That wasn’t Vinicius’s headline contribution on the night of course.

He had also opened the scoring in a crucial 2-0 win, beating Marc-Andre ter Stegen at the Barcelona goalkeeper's near post with the help of a slight deflection from Gerard Pique.

But Zidane was even more impressed with Vinicius' work-rate and it is worth noting that he has stolen back possession eight times in 280 minutes of Liga action this season.

“Vinicius, in his third year, has changed his ‘chip’,” said AS. “Without losing his freshness, he’s doing better at taking on Zidane’s corrections from the sideline.

"Vini is earning his position as a starter, with goals and with sweat."

Unless Zidane decides to wrap Vinicius in cotton wool ahead of Saturday’s Clasico at Camp Nou, the forward should again start on Wednesday, when Madrid kick off their Champions League campaign against Shakhtar Donetsk at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium.

Vinicius, then, will have yet another chance to show Zidane that he can be the priceless match-winner he was hoping Hazard would be.