Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro hailed "difference maker" Vinicius Junior after the in-form Los Blancos star produced a moment of brilliance to sink Sevilla in LaLiga.

Vinicius' stunning late goal helped Madrid overcome rivals Sevilla 2-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.

Rafa Mir's early header had Madrid on the backfoot against former head coach Julen Lopetegui, but Karim Benzema restored parity after the half-hour mark.

Vinicius then stepped up three minutes from the end with a wonderful long-range shot as Madrid moved four points clear of Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad atop the standings.

The Brazil international has now scored nine goals in 14 LaLiga appearances this season – one more than in his previous 82 games for Madrid in the competition, and Casemiro lauded 21-year-old.

"He knows that the teams are going to make it difficult for him because they realise that he's a very important player for Real Madrid," Casemiro said of his countryman.

"Great players score great goals whenever they get the chance.

"We know he's a great player, he's a difference maker when he gets the chance."

Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois added: "Vini struggled to get into the game, but then he got a great goal.

"[He] trains really hard so that things like that come off in games. He didn't have the best of games, but the confidence he has in his own ability to make the difference is what we need from him and he delivered tonight.

Madrid have won more points from losing positions than any other team in LaLiga this season – 10 points, two more than neighbours and defending champions Atletico.

"It's important for us to play at home with the fans behind us. The coach makes it very clear that the substitutions are important," Casemiro said.

"The players who came on today did very well. We're Real Madrid and we have to have a strong squad."

Carlo Ancelotti believes Vinicius Junior has "something special" after his stunning late strike sealed a 2-1 win for Real Madrid against Sevilla on Sunday.

Karim Benzema had cancelled out Rafa Mir's opener before half-time at the Santiago Bernabeu, setting the stage for Vinicius to secure maximum points in the 87th minute with a thunderous drive from 22 yards.

The Brazil international has now scored nine goals in 14 LaLiga appearances this season – one more than in his previous 82 games for Los Blancos in the competition.

Ancelotti has long been impressed with the forward's all-round play, but he is delighted that the 21-year-old has added goals to his game.

"Vini has something special," Ancelotti said. "His goal was extraordinary; a spectacular shot.

"He did not have the opportunity to make a difference with dribbling, he could not do what he wanted, but he has focused on being effective in the game.

"It's another step towards being one of the best. I knew his quality in one on one situations, in dribbling, but he did not have that ability to score goals in the past. He has shown another quality; he had never shown it."

The result moved Los Blancos four points clear of Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad at the top of the table, with Sevilla a further point back in fourth.

It meant Madrid have now won more points from losing positions than any other team in LaLiga this season (10).

"The rival was very strong and they showed all their qualities in the first half," Ancelotti said. "After their goal it was difficult for us to press up; we became unbalanced and we gave them opportunities.

"After our first goal, though, we controlled the game. We finished the game well."

 

Madrid are in action again on Wednesday when Athletic Bilbao travel to the capital, and Ancelotti revealed he will likely have to shuffle his pack.

"Those who have come off the bench, like Eduardo Camavaniga and Federico Valverde, brought a lot of energy," he said.

"I can think of some changes I will make as the team is tired – we play every three days. Valverde – we need him because he is a player who puts all his energy into the game."

Carlo Ancelotti has insisted that Vinicius Junior will continue to play in his favoured left-wing role regardless of who may join Real Madrid in the future, with Kylian Mbappe heavily linked.

Vinicius has been one of Madrid's standout performers this season, recording 10 goals and five assists in just 18 appearances across all competitions so far – second only to Karim Benzema (15 and eight respectively) in both categories at the club.

Madrid were reportedly keen to sign Paris Saint-Germain star Mbappe in the transfer window, but a move never materialised, although the 22-year-old is out of contract at the end of the season and continues to be touted as a target.

However, Ancelotti has reassured Vinicius of his place in the side no matter who may arrive in future transfer windows.

"Vinicius is a player who has to play on the left and he will continue to do it regardless of [what other players are at the club]," Ancelotti said ahead of Madrid's LaLiga match against Sevilla on Sunday.

Ancelotti was asked about the club's new stadium plans and any potential future changes to the squad, but refused to be drawn on specific players such as Mbappe and Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland.

"I like good players and they are both very good," Ancelotti continued. "I have talked about the future of this club, which has always been very clear. 

"The new stadium, the squad we have with many young people, a lot of quality, means that the future is going to be better.

"I imagine the new stadium with Ancelotti. I don't want to mix names and hopefully, Carlo will be the coach of the new stadium."

Madrid are one point clear at the top of LaLiga with a game in hand on Real Sociedad and face a tricky task on Sunday as they host third-placed Sevilla.

Los Blancos have not lost any of their last five games against Sevilla in LaLiga (W4 D1). Not since April 2003 have they gone six or more without a loss in this league fixture.

Indeed, Madrid are unbeaten in their last 12 home games against the Rojiblancos in LaLiga (W11 D1), scoring an average of 3.25 goals per game across that run.

Real Madrid forward Vinicius Junior must learn a has the humility to improve after making an impressive start to the season, according to head coach Carlo Ancelotti.

The 21-year-old has played an instrumental role in Madrid's surge to the top of the LaLiga table after their opening 13 games.

Only team-mate Karim Benzema (10) has scored more times in the Spanish top flight than Vinicius, whose tally of eight is as many as he managed in the previous three seasons combined.

The forward has attempted (89) and completed (41) more dribbles than any other player, while only Young Boys' Moumi Ngamaleu (42) has attempted more in the Champions League.

 

The Brazil international has also registered three assists in Europe's premier club competition; a tally only bettered by Bruno Fernandes and Ajax's Antony.

Nevertheless, Ancelotti insists that Vinicius can get even better.

"Because of the way he plays, [he] is the most unbalanced there is in football, there are not many players who do these things at the moment," he said.

"He has to improve because one-on-one is important in football, but it is not the most important thing. 

"But he has the humility to improve and not be happy about what he's doing; he wants to learn and he has to learn. 

"His head is fine – he doesn't have the head of someone who has won everything; he has the head of a young man who thinks he has to improve."

 

Ancelotti also played down suggestions of a fall-out between himself and Isco.

The Spain international abandoned his warm-up during Sunday's 4-1 win over Granada after being told he would be introduced at a later point in the game.

"I don't have to talk to Isco, I'm very fond of him and it's not much of a problem," Ancelotti added.

"He tells me that he had already warmed up, he was ready to go in and he has entered. 

"Isco is professional, serious, and angry because he doesn't play, but he has never disrespected me and I have never disrespected him. And he will never disrespect me, and I will never disrespect him. 

"We have a relationship that is not only professional; we have spent a lot of time together, we respect each other to the fullest."

Vinicius Junior has signalled his intent to sign a new long-term deal as he sets out to match the achievements of Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos in a Real Madrid shirt.

Brazil international Vinicius is into his fourth season as a Madrid player and has made 135 appearances in all competitions since his debut in September 2018.

Only four Madrid players have featured more times for the club during that period – Luka Modric (138), Thibaut Courtois (142), Casemiro (143) and Karim Benzema (155).

However, Vinicius is still some way short of the 438 appearances made by Ronaldo and the 671 games Ramos played for Madrid before the pair departed for pastures new.

The 21-year-old still has another two-and-a-half years to run on his existing contract and appears happy to stay on beyond that, with talks over a new deal reportedly ongoing.

"I am lucky to have been here for three years and I want to be here for much longer," he told El Larguero. 

"I want to have a great career like Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos did. And also like Marcelo is doing here."

 

Vinicius declined the chance to join Barcelona in favour of signing for fierce rivals Real Madrid in 2017, a decision the Flamengo academy product does not regret.

"The two clubs looked for me and I decided to go to Real Madrid for the project and for what they did for me," he said. 

"I thought it was the best project for me and it was the club with which I had the most affinity. 

"I always loved Real Madrid I always loved Cristiano Ronaldo and all the players. I chose well and I want to stay here for a long time."

Vinicius has enjoyed a fine start to the 2021-22 campaign with 10 goals and five assists in all competitions for Madrid.

Benzema is one of only seven players in Europe's top five leagues to have been directly involved in more goals this term, the prolific striker having scored 14 and set up eight.

The pair have built up a good connection at Madrid and Vinicius believes his team-mate's form across 2021 should see him crowned as the world's best player next month.

"Karim is a great player, I love playing with him," Vinicius said. "He always helps me. I want to continue playing with him to have a great season.

"Now we are playing a lot more time together. We already know what the other one is going to do. I hope he wins the Ballon d'Or."

Real Madrid turned on the style in a 4-1 win at Granada that showed Carlo Ancelotti's team at their most vivacious.

It took them to the top of LaLiga, if only perhaps for a few hours, with Real Sociedad playing later on Sunday, with Marco Asensio, Nacho, Vinicius Junior and Ferland Mendy all on target.

Carlo Ancelotti inherited a side who lost out to city rivals Atletico in last season's title battle, but all evidence at the Nuevo Los Carmenes pointed to this incarnation of Madrid being hard to stop.

Granada had Monchu red-carded midway through the second half, but Madrid were already 3-1 up and pressing for more at that stage.

Picked out in the inside right channel by a clever pass from Toni Kroos, Asensio opened the scoring in the 19th minute when he fired into the bottom-left corner for his fourth LaLiga goal this season.

It was 2-0 in the 25th minute as Kroos and Luka Modric played a neat one-two at a corner that resulted in Kroos crossing low from the left for Nacho at the near post to prod past goalkeeper Luis Maximiano, via the underside of the crossbar.

Asensio had a shot superbly cleared off the line by Alberto Soro, and Karim Benzema threatened, but Granada hit back when Luis Suarez's fierce 25-yard strike deflected off Nacho and whistled past the wrong-footed Thibaut Courtois.

The second half began frantically, before Madrid put daylight between the teams again in the 56th minute, Vinicius putting the finishing touch to a high-speed counter-attack after Benzema carried the ball and fed Modric, who unselfishly squared to his young team-mate.

Vinicius was beginning to enjoy himself, and a lively charge from the Brazilian forward was only stopped by a wild challenge from Monchu, earning the Granada man a straight red card from Juan Martinez Munuera. A member of the home side's dugout staff also appeared to be shown red for his protests, before Mendy added a fourth for Madrid in the 76th minute as Granada lost all focus.

Vinicius Junior would welcome Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid as there is no player who would not want the Paris Saint-Germain forward as a team-mate.

Mbappe's PSG contract expires at the end of the season and the Ligue 1 giants reportedly rejected a staggering €220million bid for the France forward in August.

PSG have been critical of Madrid's open pursuit of Mbappe, with sporting director Leonardo suggesting they should be punished for unsettling the 22-year-old.

In-form Los Blancos forward Vinicius hopes to be lining up alongside the former Monaco star for Carlo Ancelotti's side.

"All the players want to play with Mbappe. He is a great player, like Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi were. He represents the new generation that comes to stay for many years." the 21-year-old Brazilian said in an interview with Esporte Interativo.

 

Vinicius, who scored both goals in a 2-1 LaLiga win at Elche on Saturday, also called for stronger action to be taken after he was racially abused during Madrid's Clasico win at Barcelona last weekend.

The incident occurred as Vinicius made his way around the Camp Nou pitch after being substituted in the 87th minute.

LaLiga reported the abuse to the Prosecutor's Office in Barcelona in case it constitutes a hate crime. 

Vinicius said: "When they changed me, I did see a child making a gesture to me but as it was a child I passed ... but then an older person insulted me and I pointed to him so that he knew I had seen him. I don't usually give importance to these things, I prefer to focus in my game."

He added: "I think they do deserve harsher punishments, so they don't do those things again."

Vinicius took his tally to seven goals in 11 LaLiga games in 2021-22 with his double against Elche, more than he managed in his previous two seasons combined, as Los Blancos claimed a 2-1 win at the Martinez Valero.

Carlo Ancelotti refused to criticise Brazil boss Tite for snubbing Vinicius Junior after the Real Madrid star's match-winning performance at Elche.

Vinicius took his tally to seven goals in 11 LaLiga games in 2021-22, more than he managed in his previous two seasons combined, as Los Blancos claimed a 2-1 win at the Martinez Valero.

The winger scored in each half, either side of Raul Guti's dismissal, to send Madrid back to the top of the table despite a nervy finish to the game following Pere Milla's late goal.

Amid his impressive form, Vinicius has been omitted from Tite's national squad for the World Cup qualifiers in November, with Barcelona's Philippe Coutinho surprisingly recalled for what could be his first Brazil game in over a year.

However, Ancelotti was not prepared to call out Tite for the decision as he praised Vinicius' commitment this season.

"I haven't done anything but play him and give him the confidence that he obviously deserves because he's playing very well and scoring goals," Ancelotti said.

"As I've said many times, I'm not a magician. I try to do my best and give the maximum confidence to all the players. The Brazil issue is a friend's decision. A great friend. I've nothing to answer.

"He has confidence now. Everything is going well for him. He's also getting used to playing a bit more inside because he has the speed to do it. It's one thing to play one-against-one on the wing and another to do it in the middle of the box. I believe that, little by little, he's learning and doing very well."

 

Vinicius' opener was set up by Mariano Diaz, who was given a surprise start in place of the rested Karim Benzema.

Luka Jovic, who is yet to start a game under Ancelotti, was again overlooked but the Madrid boss said the striker was not yet fully fit after a knee injury.

"Jovic had a problem with his knee in the last game he played," Ancelotti explained. "He still hasn't trained and he's not comfortable. That's why he didn't play. He had a sprain and he still hasn't recovered.

"I like the way Mariano played: he did well, he was committed, he gave a fantastic assist... he played a good game."

Madrid were in complete control of the contest until Milla capitalised on a mistake by Casemiro to give Elche's 10 men the chance to snatch a point.

Ancelotti felt Madrid should have managed the latter part of the game better, but he said there was little more the players could have given after playing late on Wednesday against Osasuna.

"We have to think that, after two and a half days, you can't play a game with intensity and energy," Ancelotti said. "So, you have to get into a middle block and try to look for opportunities when they come. This isn't a Real Madrid problem, it's a problem for all teams. You can't play at your highest level with two and a half days off.

"We didn't handle the end of the game well. If you're 2-0 up with an extra man, you can't think it's over because the referee still hasn't blown his whistle. We made it complicated for ourselves, but luckily we have three more points."

Vinicius Junior stepped up in the absence of Karim Benzema by scoring twice in Real Madrid's 2-1 win over 10-man Elche in Saturday's LaLiga clash.

Coach Carlo Ancelotti took a calculated risk to rest Benzema for the game at Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero, and his side got the job done to move level with leaders Real Sociedad, who play Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.

Vinicius swept a delightful opener past former Madrid man Kiko Casilla with 22 minutes played, and Elche's task was made all the more difficult when Raul Guti was dismissed shortly after the hour mark.

Brazil international Vinicius doubled his tally 17 minutes from time and, despite a late consolation for substitute Pere Milla, Madrid saw the game through to get back to winning ways on the back of their midweek stalemate against Osasuna.

 

Rodrygo and Mariano were surprisingly selected in Madrid's frontline, with the likes of Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, Isco and Marco Asensio among the substitutes.

But Madrid were forced into an early change when the injured Rodrygo was replaced by Asensio, and they would have been behind a minute later if not for a good Thibaut Courtois save to keep out Lucas Boye's powerful strike.

Elche edged the first-half chances but fell behind to Vinicius' eighth goal in all competitions this term, as he fired across Casilla after being played in by a sublime back-heeled flick from Mariano on his first appearance of the season.

The hosts continued to look a threat as Lucas Perez somehow fired wide with plenty of the goal to aim for and Guti blasted a volley straight at Courtois.

That momentum was halted when Guti was issued a second yellow card for sliding in on Toni Kroos, however, and Vinicius made Elche pay with a chipped finish over Casilla from an acute angle.

A Casemiro error gifted Milla the chance to pull one back just five minutes after being introduced, though that proved to be nothing more than a consolation for the home team.

Vinicius Junior has been left out of Brazil's squad for November's double-header of World Cup qualifiers, despite impressing for Real Madrid with his recent form.

The 21-year-old has seven goals and three assists in 13 appearances for Madrid this season, including an incredible solo strike in last week's 5-0 Champions League win over Shakhtar Donetsk.

Vinicius' 10 direct goal involvements is the most of any Brazilian player from Europe's top five leagues, but he is not part of Tite's plans for the games with Colombia and Argentina.

Tite has instead recalled Barcelona playmaker Philippe Coutinho, who has one goal and zero assists across 10 outings in all competitions this season.

The most recent of Coutinho's 63 caps for his country came against Peru in October 2020.

Leeds United winger Raphinha and Ajax prodigy Antony are also part of the Selecao's 23-man group.

Fabinho is one of three Liverpool players to have been called, along with Roberto Firmino and Alisson, despite Jurgen Klopp saying on Friday he is "concerned" about a knee injury that will keep the midfielder out for a third game running this weekend.

Brazil have won 10 and drawn one of their opening 11 CONMEBOL qualifiers and lead the way at the top of the standings, with their place at Qatar 2022 potentially being confirmed next month.


Brazil squad: Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Manchester City), Gabriel Chapeco (Gremio); Danilo (Juventus), Emerson Royal (Tottenham), Alex Sandro (Juventus), Renan Lodi (Atletico Madrid), Eder Militao (Real Madrid), Lucas Verissimo (Benfica), Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain), Thiago Silva (Chelsea); Casemiro (Real Madrid), Fabinho (Liverpool), Fred (Manchester United), Gerson (Marseille), Lucas Paqueta (Lyon), Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona); Antony (Ajax), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Matheus Cunha (Atletico Madrid), Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Raphinha (Leeds United).

LaLiga has reported the racist abuse of Real Madrid player Vinicius Junior by a Barcelona supporter during El Clasico to local authorities. 

The incident occurred as Vinicius made his way around the Camp Nou pitch after being substituted in the 87th minute of the 2-1 victory for Los Blancos on Sunday.

LaLiga has decided to report the incident to the Prosecutor's Office in Barcelona in case it constitutes a hate crime. 

A statement from LaLiga read: "Following the events that occurred in the match held at Camp Nou last Sunday, in which a home fan abused Real Madrid player Vinicius Jr with racist insults, LaLiga will proceed to report the event to the Hate Crimes Chamber of the Prosecutor's Office in Barcelona in case they constitute the crime outlined in Article 510 of the Penal Code. 

"LaLiga, as it did when [Athletic Bilbao's] Inaki Williams received racist insults at the home of Espanyol in January 2020, will appear as a private complainant to cooperate in the fight against any type of act or behaviour that is racist or xenophobic. 

"LaLiga has been fighting this kind of behaviour for years and promoting the positive values of sport." 

Carlo Ancelotti does not believe he deserves credit for Vinicius Junior's improvement, while the Real Madrid coach is backing Eden Hazard to find his best level again this season.

Karim Benzema has undoubtedly been Madrid's standout player this season, with the Frenchman's 19 goal involvements across all competitions bettered by only Mohamed Salah (20) in Europe's top five leagues, but Vinicius' form has also provided a real positive.

In each of his previous three seasons at Madrid, Vinicius had underperformed in relation to his expected goals (xG) value, backing up the idea he was wasteful and lacked the ability to be decisive.

This season, however, Vinicius has seven goals across all competitions from an xG value of 5.2, suggesting he is proving more reliable when presented with chances and also sniffing out greater opportunities in the first place.

With 10 goal involvements, Vinicius has already reached his total from last season and is just two behind his personal best of 12 for an entire campaign (2018-19).

Many have praised Ancelotti's influence for this, but the Italian insists he has not done "anything special".

"What I like the most is that he tries," Ancelotti told reporters ahead of Wednesday's clash with Osasuna. "He tries, whenever he can, and he does it with intensity.

"Regardless of quality, he works a lot. He has to improve without the ball, but he's humble, and he likes to work.

"What I do is work on motivation and less on the offensive aspect of his game, where I leave a lot to creativity. What stands out is his creativity with the ball.

"He is focused as a player. He's young, and at times he loses concentration with the fans – I tell him that he has to focus on the game and not on the surroundings.

"It is not a father-son relationship, I already have two children! It is the relationship you want to have with all the players. I try to keep him motivated, focused, but I don't do anything special."

 

On the other hand, one Madrid wide player who is not thriving currently is Eden Hazard.

The Belgium forward's Madrid career has been devastated by injuries so far and, although he has mostly stayed fit this season, he has a lot of work on his hands to convince Ancelotti.

Hazard has made four LaLiga starts this term, but none of those have come in the past month, and he was an unused substitute for the weekend's Clasico win over Barcelona.

Ancelotti insists the former Chelsea star can get back to his best, however.

Asked if Hazard still had "star status", the coach replied: "He does not have this status because he has had many injuries. Little by little, he will have his best version.

"I am sure that this season we will see his best version and that he will play more than he is doing now. Hazard has it, everything: quality, motivation... He just has to wait. What happens is that sometimes the coach prefers other players.

"He can play 4-3-3 on the left, or 4-4-2 he can play wide, or behind the striker. He is ready to play, but the problem is that there is a coach who is betting on other players."

Gareth Bale will increase the competition for Hazard when he returns, though the Wales winger is still a couple of weeks away from making his comeback, as Ancelotti has earmarked the visit of Rayo Vallecano on November 6.

"Gareth Bale was discharged yesterday and I think that in a week he will be able to train with the team," Ancelotti said. "Maybe he can be involved against Rayo Vallecano."

Over the past 17 years or so, few – if any – fixtures in world football have been more synonymous with drama, chaos and, above all, the world's best players than El Clasico.

In a way, we probably came to take it for granted what El Clasico meant in terms of entertainment and quality.

Of course, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo became the star attractions of the contest, El Clasico almost becoming its own side story in the wider narrative of their Ballon d'Or rivalry.

Ronaldo's 2018 departure took away one element, and some might even suggest it impacted Messi negatively as well, as he failed to have a hand in a single Clasico goal after his old nemesis moved on.

Now both are gone, with Sunday's Clasico at Camp Nou the first of an era in which neither Messi nor Ronaldo will play any part.

The last season that didn't have either Messi or Ronaldo make a Clasico appearance was 2004-05, and as such there are many people who feel LaLiga has lost some of its lustre, even with Karim Benzema showing the kind of productivity that is unrivalled across the top five European leagues.

 

That's perhaps partly – along with the slow re-establishment of the tourism industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – reflected by the fact there were still 52,000 tickets available for the match as of Tuesday morning.

But that's not to say these squads aren't worth watching. El Clasico may be at the start of a transitional period itself, but there are talents in both teams who look capable of defining this fixture for the next 10 to 15 years.

AN ARCHETYPAL BARCA MIDFIELD

Would Ronald Koeman be putting so much faith in younger players were it not for Barca's financial troubles? Even when you consider the club's history with La Masia, that's debatable.

But here we are, eight matches into the 2021-22 LaLiga season and only two clubs in Spain's top flight have a younger average starting XI age than Barca (26 years, 174 days). That highlights the significance of their squad replenishment since 2017-18, when their average starting XI age was 28 years, 36 days old – the fifth oldest in the division.

 

Nowhere in the Barca team is that more noticeable than in midfield, where youngsters are being forced to mature very, very early.

Gavi had only ever played two league games for Barca's second team before this season, and despite having just five LaLiga outings under his belt, he became Spain's youngest ever international earlier this month.

But the key thing to remember is, the talent – and seemingly attitude – is there. Gavi and Nico have made the step up this season to join Pedri, which could feasibly be Barca's long-term midfield trio, such is the ability and skillset the three teenagers have so far demonstrated.

Sadly, Pedri is likely to miss the Clasico this weekend due to injury, but the remarkable ease to which he took to LaLiga last season provided every shred of evidence needed to consider him a genuine key figure already. The maturity he showed at Euro 2020 only cemented that.

 

Pedri performed an integral function in Luis Enrique's team as he complete more final-third passes (177) than any other player at the Euros, the teenager proving to be hugely dependable when it came to helping keep Spain in possession and on the front foot in those tighter areas of the pitch.

Of course, the way Spain play means their players are likely to have more passes than others, but the fact he fitted in so quickly speaks volumes. Andres Iniesta comparisons have never been far away, even while he was still at Las Palmas, and it's his excellence in this kind of facilitator role that lends further credence to it.

Pedri was involved in 4.2 shot-ending sequences per 90 minutes last season, which was only bettered by five players who ordinarily play in central midfield roles – Frenkie de Jong (5.0) ranked highest. While Iniesta averaged 5.1 each game back in his prime in 2015-16, that dropped to 2.9 in his final season, highlighting how Pedri is absolutely on the right track in terms of influencing Barca's build-up play.

But the beauty of the options Barca have coming through at the moment is that Pedri can realistically expect to have plenty of assistance when it comes to managing the side's considered, possessional style.

 

Gavi has a particularly interesting profile. While he's undoubtedly comfortable on the ball with respect to both passing and dribbling – his nifty turn to spin around Paul Pogba before getting a shot away in the Nations League final was proof of that – he's also a feisty individual.

He's engaged in 14.5 duels per match on average this season. Going back to the start of 2020-21, the only Barca players (minimum of 300 minutes played) to be more involved in that respect are Messi (14.9) and Ilaix Moriba (17.4).

Of course, it's worth pointing out he still has a lot of room for growth here. Gavi's already got four yellow cards across all competitions this season, and his tendency to go flying into tackles a little recklessly was notable during the Nations League, but if this side of his game is nurtured properly then it will be a real asset to Barca's midfield. It's easy to see why Luis Enrique said Marco Verratti is the teenager's idol.

The other potential long-term pillar of Barca's midfield is Nico, the son of former Deportivo La Coruna title-winner and Spain international Fran. Of the three of them, Nico's probably still got the furthest to go to nail down a regular spot, but the promise is there.

In Barca's B team he carried out various midfield functions but really came into his own once deployed as a pivot, the Sergio Busquets role, if you will. It's in this position that his strengths really shine through, as he is comfortable at receiving the ball under pressure because he's so good at using his physicality in conjunction with a delicate appreciation of the ball at his feet.

The similarities with Busquets in that sense are quite striking, though he still has work to do to get a prolonged chance in that position under Koeman, who called Nico out for a lack of defensive awareness in the defeat to Atletico Madrid. He was blamed for letting Thomas Lemar run clear for the first goal.

Nevertheless, there's a lot to like about Nico, particularly his satisfying comfort on the ball. Although not especially quick, his dribbling ability is going to really help him stand out. Sure, it's early days in the season and he's not played a huge amount of football, but so far he is completing 73 per cent of his dribble attempts, which won't surprise those who have been raving about him for a while now.

If given the opportunity to progress and develop, this trio could be Barca's next iconic midfield.

TWO MESSIS?

When Messi's exit was swiftly followed by the announcement of a then injured Ansu Fati taking the number 10 jersey, there were surely plenty of people wondering if it was too much, too soon for him.

Those doubts will not have stemmed from his ability, but rather concern for the mental toll such expectation could have on someone who – let's not forget – is still only 18.

But after 10 months out with a serious knee injury, he returned to the pitch against Levante last month and dazzled in a brief cameo, which included an excellent goal as he spun away from a defender and fired home from distance. It was the kind of reintroduction that suggested he was going to relish his new senior role rather than be cowed by it.

He made his first start of the season last weekend at home to Valencia and only needed 13 minutes to get Barca on the scoresheet. He came off the left flank, played a one-two with Memphis Depay and whipped a clinical effort into the bottom corner from 20 yards. Had it been off his left foot, there would have been more than a hint of Messi to it.

That took him to 11 LaLiga goals in 1,059 minutes since the start of February 2020. In that time, only Alex Fernandez (37.5 per cent) boasts a better conversion rate among LaLiga players with at least five goals than Fati (29 per cent).

Those 11 efforts come from a 4.5 expected goals (xG) value, which is of course a massive overperformance. Ordinarily one would be inclined to think such form is unsustainable, but Fati is clearly special. After missing the best part of a year, he's come back and looked extremely sharp.

One area Barca will hope for improvement is his ability to fashion chances for others because, not only did Messi score more than anyone else at Barca, he also created the most chances.

Fati's 1.7 key passes per 90 mins since the start of last season isn't bad, but Messi was at 2.6 in 2020-21. Of course, it would be unfair to expect anyone to rival Messi's output in terms of goals and creativity, but in an ideal world, Barca will pick up the slack somehow and Fati looks likely to be their next big hope, hence the new six-year contract with a €1billion release clause.

 

But perhaps Yusuf Demir can share some of the burden in future as well – after all, he was nicknamed the 'Austrian Messi' prior to joining Barca on an initial loan back in July.

The 18-year-old has been used sparingly since starting successive league games last month, but hopes for him are high. The Messi comparisons, perhaps rather obviously, come from the fact he's fairly small, left-footed and likes to dribble in off the right flank.

He's only five games into his Camp Nou career and undoubtedly raw, but Demir had been highly rated long before Barca took their opportunity to bring him in during pre-season.

At Rapid Vienna last season, Demir may have started in just six of his 25 Austrian Bundesliga outings (825 minutes), yet he amassed a respectable seven goal involvements, which averaged out at one every 117.9 minutes – of the players to feature for at least 825 minutes, only 10 had a better record.

 

Only one of those involvements was an assist, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story about his creativity as Demir was a regular creator when he did play, which is evidenced by the fact his 2.7 key passes per 90 was the sixth best among those to play at least 825 minutes.

But probably his most notable skill, and the one that inspires some of the Messi comparisons, is his dribbling. A dynamic and explosive player, Demir attempted 6.3 dribbles every game on average last term. No player (minimum 108 minutes) matched that. His 3.8 successful dribbles was also a league high, and it's that flair that has seen him find his way to Catalonia.

It remains to be seen what kind of an impact Demir can have at Barca this season, but there's every chance he and Fati could be terrorising LaLiga full-backs together for years.

FUTURE IS BRIGHT FOR LOS BLANCO

Barcelona's reliance on youth this season has been greater than Real Madrid's, for obvious reasons. But in Vinicius Junior they have one of most in-form players aged 21 or younger in world football, and Eduardo Camavinga joined in pre-season after developing into a serious talent at Rennes.

Camavinga remains something of a mystery regarding his long-term role and even suitability at Madrid, given he has only played five league games, but his promising beginning at Rennes offers plenty to be optimistic about.

For starters, he regularly featured in a midfield trio for Rennes and at least for the time being that will be the case in Madrid, but he also offers a nice blend of explosive flair and defensive work rate.

Only five players in Ligue 1 last season won more tackles than Camavinga (59) and all of them played at least 492 minutes more than him across the course of the season, while he also completed 66.2 per cent of his 65 attempted dribbles. Of the players to try at least 45, only six boasted a better success rate.

Obviously at a club like Madrid, Camavinga will expect to do less defensive work because they'll spend more time on the ball, but knowing they have someone in that number 8 role who is both effective in possession and without it can only be a good thing.

But while we wait for Camavinga to truly make his mark (he has only played 197 minutes in LaLiga), Vinicius is enjoying something of a coming-of-age campaign.

 

He's always looked exciting but so often there have been doubts over his decision making and decisiveness. For example, he only scored three goals in LaLiga last season from an xG value of 6.5 – he couldn't be counted on to make the difference.

But the strides he has made this season have been significant. The Brazilian is attempting more than twice as many dribbles each game (7.0) compared to 2020-21 (3.1), yet his success rate has improved (41.1 per cent to 44.6) as well.

In front of goal he's no longer wasting chances he should be converting – in fact, he's actually been clinical with five goals from 3.5 xG, his shot conversion rate going up from 7.5 per cent to 23.8.

For starters, this suggests he's picking his opportunities better, but the fact he's already at 3.5 xG highlights that he's getting himself into better positions as well.

Vinicius has rarely appeared to lack confidence, but now that seems to be translating into extra attacking responsibility and he's embracing it. He's carrying the ball more and across greater distances, but more importantly than that, it's leading to an increase in Madrid's output in the final third, with Vinicius' shot involvements from ball carries improving to 2.9 this term from 1.1 (per 90 minutes) in 2020-21.

Suddenly he's looking like the future superstar many thought he was destined to be when he left Flamengo, with his wonderful brace against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday a prime example of his new-found clinical nature.

Few would bet against him having a similarly decisive impact in El Clasico, but even if he doesn't, there will be enough young talent on display to highlight why this could be the start of an exciting new era in Spanish football's most watched fixture.

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti says Vinicius Junior is brimming with confidence following his wonderful individual goal in their thrashing of Shakhtar Donetsk.

The 13-time European champions romped to a commanding 5-0 victory in Kiev, their biggest away win in the Champions League since beating Viktoria Plzen by the same scoreline in November 2018.

Vinicius was on target twice, his second goal in the 56th minute the highlight of a dazzling performance.

Just five minutes after doubling his side’s lead, the winger beat several defenders with a jinking run from the left, before firing past Shakhtar keeper Anatolii Trubin.

Ancelotti saluted the Brazil international, who now has seven goals in all competitions this season, his highest tally during a single campaign for Los Blancos.

But the head coach insisted the highest praise should be reserved for the entire team as they bounced back from successive defeats, and warmed up nicely ahead of Sunday's Clasico showdown with Barcelona.

"My team thrives on incredible ambition, which is why we've produced the perfect match," Ancelotti said to reporters post-match.

"After our recent results, it was vital to react and we've done it well. We did what we promised to. 

"Vinicius finished very well indeed, but it was a team effort to produce the goals. 

"He's a young guy, a great player in the making, learning and right now, he's brimming with confidence. But the special praise I'll give is to the entire team." 

As well as his two goals, Vinicius teed up international compatriot Rodrygo's goal as the former recorded a goal and an assist for the first time in 24 Champions League appearances.

The 21-year-old is pleased with the strides he is making, while he also expressed his gratitude for the faith shown in him by Ancelotti.

"I'm still 21, there's lots of time for me to grow into a great player," Vinicius commented after the full-time whistle.

"But I'm working hard so that even if sometimes things don't come off for me, other moments will. I've scored seven times this season – better than the last season – and that's important.

"I love playing in pressure matches, that's natural to me. But the trust and confidence this coach has shown in me is important, too."

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

The Real Madrid boss was talking about arguably the standout player from Los Blancos' strong start to the season – and, brilliant as he continues to be, it's not Karim Benzema.

When Ancelotti spoke before Madrid's 2-1 win at Valencia, Vinicius Junior was on a run of four goals in as many games in LaLiga. That tally reached five in five after he fired in a late equaliser at Mestalla – as many goals as he had scored in 59 previous league matches.

For attacking players, nothing builds belief like the support of a coach and regularly sticking the ball in the net. Vinicius has both of those things going for him right now, and it's yielding the best form of his Madrid career.

 

NEW-MAR

Signed amid much fanfare from Flamengo three years ago, it has taken Vinicius time to fully find his feet in the Spanish capital. Patience is notoriously thin on the ground where Madrid are concerned, but fans have been more willing than usual to play the long game with the Brazil international, who has already played 88 times in Spain's top flight, a tally bettered by just six compatriots in the club's history.

Given Marca ran a headline this week asking whether Vinicius' form in 2021-22 meant Madrid had found "the new Neymar" – a player they once wanted to bring back to Spain, no less – it would appear the wait has been worth it.

Along with five goals, Vinicius has provided two assists and created 10 chances this term, all of them from open play. Only Eden Hazard (12) and Karim Benzema (14) have created more among Madrid's squad. Indeed, among players aged 21 and under, only Erling Haaland (seven goals, three assists) has been directly involved in more goals in 2021-22 in Europe's top five leagues.

 

After the first six matches of 2020-21, Vinicius had two goals and zero assists, with three chances created for team-mates. Granted, he had spent 52 fewer minutes on the pitch in those six games than he has this season, but he has undeniably made better use of the time given to him of late.

In the first six games of 2021-22, Vinicius' 17 shots have come amid a 2.64 expected goals (xG) total, but they account for 4.36 expected goals on target (xGOT), giving some indication as to the high quality of his attempts. (The xG metric assesses the quality of chances, and xGOT looks at the player's actual effort at goal.)

By contrast, at the same stage of last season, he had xG of 2.58 but xGOT of just 1.49 from 13 shots.

KYLIAN (IN THE NAME OF)

A strong indicator of Vinicius' form, his willingness to stand up in matches and why those Neymar comparisons are a little closer to the mark than they once were, is the upturn in his impact when running with the ball.

 

After six games in LaLiga last term, he had completed only five of 17 attempted take-ons. That success rate of 29.4 per cent was the lowest of any Madrid player to complete at least one dribble.

This season, that success rate has jumped to 47.6 per cent, Vinicius having completed 20 of 42 attempted take-ons. These are identical figures to one Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain – another Madrid transfer target.

Not only that, but 42 attempted take-ons is the most by any player in LaLiga in 2021-22, while Vinicius also ranks highest for take-ons in the box (eight) and those ending with a shot (four), and joint-highest for drives into the penalty area (also four).

 

HEARTBEAT

Vinicius is also averaging 62 touches of the ball per 90 minutes, an increase from 57 at this stage of the season in 2020-21. It follows that he is more heavily involved in the action at the top end of the pitch: he has had 36 involvements in shot-ending sequences in LaLiga, a figure bettered only by Real Betis' Nabil Fekir (38) and Madrid's own Benzema (51). On average, his tally has jumped from just over three per game in 2020-21 to more than seven in 2021-22. And, of those sequences this season, 10 have ended in a goal – only Benzema (14) can do better.

This is a player embracing responsibility, demanding the ball, and dazzling when he gets it: in short, he's showing all the best qualities of Neymar, Mbappe or anyone else Madrid may wish to buy, and offering fans everything they hoped for when he first arrived for €46million in 2018.

Perhaps competition is bringing the best out of Vinicius: with Gareth Bale back at the Santiago Bernabeu (although presently injured), Eden Hazard showing more encouraging signs and Marco Asensio fully fit again, there is no shortage of options for the Benzema support act. Or maybe Ancelotti really does have the magic touch to keep Vinicius in vibrant form for a whole season, beyond the fleeting glimpses displayed under Zinedine Zidane.

Whatever the reason, Vinicius has never looked so dangerous in a Madrid shirt. Worryingly for his opponents, there could be plenty more to come.

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