Real Madrid entertained Atletico Madrid in the league in February at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Nothing could separate the teams in the two times they had already met during the season. Twice they finished normal time scoreless (Real Madrid defeated Atletico after a penalty shootout in the previous month's Spanish Super Cup final in Saudi Arabia).
At half-time in their battle at the Bernabeu, Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane called for Vinicius Junior from the bench as part of a double substitution to try to break the deadlock. Ten minutes after coming on, the young Brazilian collected a pass close to the touchline on the left wing. After looking up a couple of times, it seemed there wasn't an option on.
Then, with the slightest dip of his shoulder, he threw his marker and threaded a pass through to Ferland Mendy, who broke behind Atletico's defence. One short pass had immediately taken three defenders out of the game. Mendy crossed to Karim Benzema who tapped in at the back post to score the match-winner. There's something special, something different, about Vinicius Junior.
"At Real Madrid, they view him as a diamond in the rough," says Jaime Rodriguez, a journalist with El Mundo. "He's like a wild animal. He obviously doesn't have the finesse, the beautiful skills, the natural talent of a Messi or a Neymar, but he has other virtues—his speed, his physique, his cheekiness. He unsettles defences. For me, he's the best dribbler—along with Neymar—that there is in the world of football.
"Here's a guy who for a period last season—when he was only 18 years of age—carried the team on his back, for example at the Camp Nou [against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey]. At Real Madrid, they're clear he's a good bet for the future, and they won't let him escape. It's not only Real Madrid who believe in his potential. He's valued in many quarters. I can prove from different sources that last year PSG would only consider negotiating for Neymar if Vinicius was included as a makeweight. He's just missing a bit of steadiness in the box."
Scoring has been a problem for Vinicius. Since joining Real Madrid's first-team squad towards the start of last season—after his move from Brazil was fast-tracked—he's only scored four goals in 37 games.
Zidane has not always been convinced by Vinicius Junior, although he was getting into his groove—which included scoring the opening goal against Barcelona in a 2-0 win at the Bernabeu in March—when the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to Spanish football. Since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure from Real Madrid in the summer of 2018, Vinicius has been a saviour figure at the club.
"There's a refrain we use here in Spain: 'In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,'" says Marco Ruiz, a journalist with Diario AS. "Vinicius stands out a lot in Real Madrid's squad for this quality. He's anarchic, but he's missing the killer touch. He has an alarming deficit when it comes to finishing. If he suddenly starts to score goals, he'll become a super player, but if he doesn't, he won't become a regular in Real Madrid's team."
Spanish football writer, Juanma Trueba, is unsure whether goalscoring is something that can be added to his armoury: "I have doubts about him. When he's in a scoring position, it's like there's a black out. He fluffs chances. It could be anxiety. When he scores, they're often flukes.
"Goalscoring is not something you can learn. It's extremely rare that a footballer who doesn't score goals early in his career starts to score goals regularly later in his career. Aritz Aduriz [the 39-year-old Athletic Bilbao striker who retired last week] is a case, for example, but he's an exception to the rule.
"Vinicius is a player that has the favour of the Bernabeu. He excites fans. Every time he touches the ball you notice emotion welling up in the stadium. They know he's a player that creates danger. You can see he's being used as a symbol for hope. If things are going bad for the club, they have Vinicius, a young guy who can get the stadium on its feet. He's exuberant. He communicates with the terraces. It's why they love him.
"For his development, though, it would be good for him to go out on loan because when Real Madrid can call on a fully fit Eden Hazard again, there won't be much room for another player in that position on the left side of Real Madrid's attack. It would give him time to mature."
"He looks a little bit lost on the pitch," says Rodriguez, "but it's not only him—his team-mates don't look for him when they have the ball or they can't find him with a pass. He's like a Martian in Madrid's attack."
Jovic's standing at the club hit a new low in March when he was overlooked by Zidane for the Clasico matchday squad. The club's third-choice centre-forward, Mariano Diaz, got the nod over him, coming on as a substitute for Benzema in injury time (and scoring a minute after coming on).
"Jovic has been a huge disappointment," says Ruiz. "Last year, he had a really good season with Eintracht Frankfurt. He scored a lot [27 goals in 48 games], but he looks like a different player at Real Madrid. The goals have dried up. It's like the club just threw €60 million in the bin.
"Real Madrid's problem is that it can't buy a good forward because it already has Benzema. Jovic is still only 22. He could be a great striker in the future, but he's not the centre-forward that Real Madrid need. He's not one of the top five strikers in the world. He's not even close."
Jovic's behaviour off the pitch hasn't helped. His indiscipline includes breaking the coronavirus lockdown in his native Serbia. He was caught celebrating his girlfriend's birthday on the streets of Belgrade, an indiscretion that prompted the country's president, Aleksandar Vucic, to threaten him with arrest.
There is, however, a thought—laid out in a front-page feature earlier in the week in Marca—that Jovic might benefit from a second chance. The report cited the slow start Benzema—who has also had his off-field problems—had to his career at the club. It wasn't until Benzema's third season that the Frenchman hit his stride. Trueba is sceptical, believing the comparison with Benzema doesn't stand up.
"Benzema ultimately triumphed at the club because he has a lot of quality," says Trueba. "We thought at the start that as well as having quality he was also a prolific goalscorer, but it wasn't the case. He doesn't have the ambition to be a goalscorer. He felt comfortable being a sidekick to Cristiano Ronaldo. Benzema also has the favour of the president, which facilitated his evolution. He was never questioned inside the club. It gave him confidence. He could benefit from the patience of the club's coaches.
"Sure, a player needs time before you can make a proper assessment, but in the case of Real Madrid when you see a player in the white jersey, and you see them on the pitch with the team, you know if they fit. Jovic is one of these footballers who doesn't fit at Real Madrid. He looks rigid. He lacks experience. He looks out of his depth. It was a mistake by Zidane—who pushed to get him signed. As well as not scoring, he's not connecting with madridismo [Real Madrid's fans]. People are disappointed with him. Not a single person will feel sadness if he leaves Real Madrid."
One of the 42 players on Real Madrid's books, and one of 14 on loan, who might well prosper at the club is the 21-year-old Norwegian playmaker Martin Odegaard. He's been a sensation this season at Real Sociedad, having joined the Basque club in the summer on a two-year loan deal (with the option to return to Real Madrid in the summer). He scored a winner against Mallorca in only his second game and has had a hand in 12 goals in 27 games for the club.
"Odegaard has some very good attributes," says Rodriguez. "It looks like he's got everything needed to triumph at Real Madrid if he continues his rate of progression. He can play as a No. 10, or in Luka Modric's position, closer to midfield. He can score goals. He's fast. He can dribble. He looks as if he'll succeed when he returns.
"At Real Madrid, they're thinking about bringing him back when the season finishes, but it's dependent on the departure of Modric. For Zidane, Modric is fundamental. He has a lot of respect for him. They're thinking Modric might leave this summer for Inter Milan, but it's up in the air.
"If there aren't departures this summer, it's better he stays on loan for one more year, especially after such a strange season. His season at Real Sociedad has gone well so far, but it's not finished yet. Let's see how he gets on in the last 11 games of the season. If he stays at the same level, and finishes one of the stars of La Liga, you couldn't discount Real Madrid incorporating him for next season's squad."
It hasn't been an easy road for Odegaard. He joined Real Madrid five years ago to huge fanfare. He came on as a substitute for Ronaldo in the final game of the 2014-15 season at the Bernabeu, making him the youngest league debutant in Real Madrid's history at 16 years and 157 days. Then things went awry. He spent a few years in the wilderness, including a difficult time with the team's reserves before turning a corner during two loan spells in the Netherlands with Heerenveen and Vitesse Arnhem, respectively.
The big question now relates to whether he can take the next step. Trueba thinks he's ready to come back to the Bernabeu this summer, but it's impossible to know whether he can thrive at Real Madrid until he's properly tested there. Ruiz concurs.
"Odegaard is very creative," says Ruiz. "He plays in that hole between attack and midfield. Real Madrid has a lot of players of this kind, but his timing could be good. Modric is in the final stretch of his career, so there's a space opening up in Real Madrid's squad. He'd have to compete for this place with Isco and Dani Ceballos.
"It's taken a while for Odegaard to explode. He's a player that still has to demonstrate he has it. At Real Sociedad, he's played very well, but he hasn't been under pressure. We have to see how he'll cope at Real Madrid. Until he plays regularly at the Bernabeu, we won't know if he's the top player he seems he could be."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz