Real Madrid-bound Vinicius Junior saves Flamengo in Copa Libertadores debut
Fans of Brazilian club Flamengo can celebrate, but supporters of Real Madrid can also open the champagne: 17-year-old Vinicius Junior enjoyed a magnificent debut in the Copa Libertadores on Wednesday night. His first half-hour in South America's premier club competition showed why the Spanish giants paid an astonishing €45 million for him a year ago, before he had even played a senior game. The size of the fee raised eyebrows all over the world.
And on Wednesday, Vinicius -- who will officially become a Madrid player in July when he turns 18 -- raised hopes that he could well be something special.
The pressure was on when he was brought off the bench some 66 minutes into Flamengo's second game of their Libertadores campaign. There was considerable disappointment when he was not introduced for the first game, a 2-2 draw at home to River Plate.
That result meant that in order to make it out of the group phase, Flamengo would have to pick up points on their travels. This was their Achilles' heel last year, when they won at home but lost their away games and crashed out embarrassingly in the group phase. And another defeat seemed well on the way. When Vinicius came off the bench, Flamengo had just gone a goal down away to Emelec of Ecuador. The signs were not good. Having to chase the game left Flamengo all stretched out. Emelec winger Jefferson Montero, back at his first club following a loan move from Swansea, was leading them a merry dance. A second Emelec goal looked a distinct possibility.
Flamengo came up with a flowing move, sucking in the home defence and passing to Vinicius in space on the right edge of the penalty area. It was a good opportunity, but the youngster wasted it. He blazed across the face of goal, neither shooting nor crossing. This type of wayward decision-making has been a feature of his first 10 months in the Flamengo side. Understandably given his age, inexperience and the expectations piled upon him, he has frequently failed to stay composed at the vital moment. But errors of this kind are necessary steps on the path to success, as he quickly demonstrated.
GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL DE VINICIUS JUNIOR DE NOVO! #WixFla #EMExFLA pic.twitter.com/ZjzYtiw9qa— Flamengo (@Flamengo) March 15, 2018
Typically Vinicius is employed wide on the left, cutting in onto his stronger right foot. On this occasion, in what turned out to be a masterstroke, coach Paulo Cesar Carpegiani played him wide on the right.
The option was dictated by the Emelec full-backs. Had Vinicius played in his normal role, he would have been up against the former Watford man Juan Carlos Paredes -- erratic, but with plenty of jerky pace. On the other flank, though, was Oscar Bagui, a veteran who could not hope to match Vinicius for speed.
Flamengo started to make long, diagonal passes in his direction. After 77 minutes he received, cut inside Bagui and centre-back Marlon Mejia and, with the aid of a slight deflection, beat the keeper with a left-footed shot.
It was a stadium-silencing piece of brilliance, and the winner seven minutes later was even better. Vinicius was on the end of another long ball, played a neat return of passes with playmaker Diego and -- no need of a deflection this time -- curled a gloriously confident left-footed shot into the far corner.
The two goals might well make the difference between qualifying for the knockout stage and failing to make the cut. After looking in serious trouble in the competition, Flamengo suddenly have found a reason to have a stride in their step. But before long, perhaps as soon as the middle of this year, Vinicius will be taking his next steps on the other side of the Atlantic. Real Madrid await -- and with extra anticipation after a memorable Libertadores debut.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.