Zinedine Zidane and Vinicius Junior have not always seen eye to eye but they could be Real Madrid’s golden ticket to a win in Saturday’s Clasico and move above in-form Barcelona at the top of La Liga.
Zidane gambled on Vinicius’ raw talent on Tuesday by starting him up front with Karim Benzema, and the 20-year-old repaid his manager with the two goals that have put Madrid 90 minutes from the Champions League semi-finals.
It’s all a far cry from last July when Zidane left Vinicius out of his starting line-up to face Manchester City and the Brazilian responded by looking at his phone in the dressing room instead of warming-up.
Vinicius Junior repaid Zinedine Zidane’s faith in him with two goals against Liverpool
He is an unpredictable talent but looks in confident mood, which will concern Barcelona
Now it’s Zidane’s tactical nous and Vini’s unpredictable talent that threaten Barcelona’s extraordinary run of form. They have not lost in the league since the start of December but they know a trip to the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium is a huge hurdle to cross if they want to win the league this season.
Vinicius has had an odd couple of days after his two goals on Tuesday. He’s not used to all the praise. He had only scored four goals all season before this week but now, with six, he’s the club’s level second highest scorer with Casemiro behind Benzema.
He’s used to hearing criticism about how he is still not fulfilling the promise he showed at Flamengo when Madrid signed him for 45m euros (£40m) as an 18-year-old. Some of that stick has even come from his own team-mates – Benzema told Ferland Mendy: ‘don’t give the ball to him’ in the tunnel at half-time against Borussia Mönchengladbach earlier in the season.
But since scoring his first ever brace for Real Madrid’s first team it’s been all praise and he should be full of confidence going into Saturday’s game.
Vinicius fell out with Zidane last year but now could fire him to another El Clasico victory
AS are building up to Saturday’s El Clasico by talking up the battle between top scorers Benzema and Messi, but it could be Dembele and Vinicius who decide who ends up winning
Here is what the top of the LaLiga table looks like ahead of Saturday’s crucial El Clasico
Zidane is the best man to help him tap into that confidence and not lose perspective. He may not necessarily be the best of coaches at improving young players but there is no one better to advise them once the praise and expectations come.
Vinicius has started nine of the last 12 games and should make that 10 in 13 for the fixture that could end up deciding the title this season.
Barcelona have their own in form winger-turned-goalscorer. Ousmane Dembele scored in the 90th minute against Valladolid to ensure that Barcelona go into this Clasico ahead of Real Madrid in the table.
This game is huge for the Frenchman’s future. Diario Sport has reported that he has a three-year contract extension on the table which Barça want him to sign sooner rather than later for fear he’ll go into his final season without a new deal. No game reaches a bigger global audience than this one and a huge performance against Real Madrid could bring other interested parties to the table and force Barça to offer him more.
Vinicius’ influence on Real is growing, and as Sport predict, will likely be a starter on Saturday
Barcelona have their own man reborn in Dembele, who has three goals in his last five in LaLiga
Dembele, alongside Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann ought to fancy themselves against what remains a very under-strength Real Madrid defence.
The injured Sergio Ramos and coronavirus positive Raphael Varane will both be missing and although right-back Dani Carvajal is back in training he has not played since February 14 because of a thigh tendon problem and is unlikely to start.
Liverpool failed to take advantage of Real Madrid’s defensive shortcomings in midweek – creating only one real chance which Mohamed Salah scored from – but Barcelona’s forward line could be a very different proposition.
Messi will be playing his 45th Clasico and his first at Real Madrid’s training ground stadium. He will be looking to add to the record 26 goals he has scored so far in this fixture.
Benzema enjoys this game too. He has scored nine goals against Barcelona. The way they set up defensively is still up for debate. It could be a three with Frenkie de Jong between two more orthodox central defenders and Sergino Dest and Jordi Alba sat high as wing-backs, or a flat back four.
Dembele could seal a larger contact offer from Barcelona if he performs against Madrid
Messi will be playing in his 45th Clasico and will hope to add to his 26 goals against Madrid
Benzema enjoys this fixture too with nine goals against Barca, including this one back in 2017
Either way Ronald Araujo is likely to come into the team precisely to deal with the pace and power of born again Vinicius. The fact that Koeman will make selection decisions based on the Brazilian is another sign of how far Vini has come.
And another clear indication of that is the new ‘no-rush’ policy regarding Eden Hazard’s fitness. The Belgian was back in training this week having not been included against Liverpool but he can take as long as he wants all the time Vinicius – currently playing in Hazard’s position – is playing as well as he is.
This game is also important because of the head-to-head goal-difference that will be used to separate Barcelona and Madrid if they finish on level points at the end of May. Real Madrid won at the Nou Camp 3-1 to maintain Zidane’s record of never have lost an away Clasico as coach.
Now he must see his team over the line in the home game between the two teams. If he manages it Zidane will have plucked a potentially historic season – winning the league and Champions League for the second time as Real Madrid manager – from the debris of what looked like a failed campaign.
Real Madrid will be without their captain Sergio Ramos, who is still recovering from injury
Barca will fancy their chances against a weakened defence, which will also be without Varane