From laughing stock to cream of Real Madrid crop - Vinicius Jr heading into Clasico against Barcelona as a player to be feared

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From a laughing stock to the cream of the crop, from spiteful memes to making good on his Real Madrid dream.

Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior has suffered a lot of criticism since arriving in the Spanish capital in 2018, but his start to this campaign has left his detractors clutching at straws.

The 21-year-old has become, along with striker Karim Benzema, Madrid’s biggest threat.

When Vinicius arrived and showed some early promise, some over-enthusiastic members of the Madrid media compared him to Barcelona legend and six-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi.

It was a risible message and quickly disproven as Vinicius’s erratic performances made him a figure of fun, as he was thrust under the spotlight at Madrid, filling in for the departed Cristiano Ronaldo on the left flank.

That contrast reflected badly on Vinicius and many were quick to criticise him for his naivety in possession, jangling nerves and wild shooting. Fast forward three seasons and the situation has changed completely.

Nobody in Catalonia is laughing now, with Vinicius arriving at Camp Nou on Sunday for El Clasico with seven goals in 11 games this season, a player to be feared.

All five of Vinicius’ La Liga goals have arrived in open play, while Barcelona’s main attacking threat, Memphis Depay, has only scored four, two of which were penalties.

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Gerard Pique, 34, managed to keep Dynamo Kiev striker Vladyslav Supriaha quiet in the week, but Vinicius is on a much higher plane, while Benzema is in superlative form.

After six months without a goal, Vinicius snapped sharply into focus against Liverpool last season. Explosively dismantling Jurgen Klopp’s defence, he hit two in the Champions League quarter-final clash, foreshadowing what he is becoming now. Those two goals made up a third of his 2020-21 tally, netting just six in total for Real Madrid in 49 games.

That highlights the lack of precision that turned him into a running joke, but he kept working on his game and now it’s paying dividends.

Because Vinicius was given so many games so early, with Ronaldo’s boots to fill, it was easy to forget his age. He is still at the very beginning of his career. Real Madrid is, historically, not the most patient of clubs but president Florentino Perez, who signed Vinicius from Flamengo for €45 million (£38m/$52m), has been keen to give him time.

In the sporadic moments of magic offered by the forward on the left flank, he saw the potential for a superstar. This season Vinicus has improved his end product, the accuracy of his passing and, most importantly, no longer seems nervous in the box.

The Brazilian scored two goals and set one up in the 5-0 Champions League romp over Shakhtar Donetsk in Kiev this week, with his second strike being one of the goals of the season so far.

He cut inside from the left flank, into a crowd of players, backing himself to beat them, which he did. Up against another defender in the box he chopped the ball to the left, a dribble reminiscent of Messi’s against Bayern Munich which left Jerome Boateng on the floor. Finally, he sent the ball home, but without wildly slashing at it as he would have done in seasons past.

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“I’m only 21 years old. I have a lot of time to become the great player that the club and I believe I can,” said Vinicius after the game. “I keep working hard. Sometimes it doesn't come off for me but that's normal. I keep trying and the goals come. I have now scored seven goals this season, that’s already more than last season.”

The days where Benzema would look exasperated with his team-mate are over. It’s still less than a year ago he was spotted telling Ferland Mendy not to pass the ball to the winger.

“On my mother’s life, he’s playing against us,” said the forward. Benzema has changed his tune. “He is still young and he deserves everything he's getting at the moment,” explained the French striker. “He's a great player for his age. He is scoring goals and creating them and we all hope it continues.”

Vinicius has scored in the Clasico before. He opened the scoring in March 2020 as Madrid earned a vital victory over Quique Setien’s Barcelona on their way to the title, although his effort took a significant deflection. He has improved significantly since then, with many crediting the change this season to new coach Carlo Ancelotti.

"I am not a magician," said the Italian, modestly. "Just a coach who has to give players the confidence they need to express their qualities."

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Meanwhile, Jose Luis Sanchez of El Chiringuito has reported Vinicius has also started working with a sports psychologist, who perhaps has helped him become more consistent. It’s a work in progress. If he can iron out the flaws, there are few more dangerous players to face.

“Vinicius Junior seems to have used up all the efficiency he showed in the first games of the season,” grumbled Marca earlier in October after he fired blanks against Mallorca, Villarreal, Sheriff and Espanyol. While the first of those games was a 6-1 win, the others saw Madrid drop important points and at times the forward seemed to have reverted to his past self.

After his brace against Shakhtar, Madrid will hope in the Clasico that Vinicius has gone back to the future.