Vinicius Junior can star for Brazil at World Cup, ease pressure on Neymar

After his stellar showing against Barcelona in Real Madrid‘s 3-2 Spanish Supercopa semifinal Clasico win, Vinicius Junior has been recalled to Brazil‘s squad for upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador and Paraguay.

The above might seem an entirely non-controversial statement. After all, the 21-year-old winger is emerging as one of the stars of the global game, with the latest evidence coming on Wednesday with his fine goal-scoring performance at Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd Stadium.

But back in November, when Brazil last called up a squad for qualifying matches and coach Tite read out 23 names, none of them was Vinicius.

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Had it not been for a subsequent injury to Liverpool‘s Roberto Firmino, Vinicius would have remained out. Instead, the youngster got a chance to prove his worth, away to Argentina; in the first full 90 minutes he played for O Seleção, Vinicius terrified the home defence and Brazil have the better of a goalless draw.

That performance alone made him impossible to leave out now, but so consistently excellent have his club displays been that Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has had to bat off questions about an alleged Vinicius dependency.

Indeed, Real struggled mightily when he was forced out after testing positive for coronavirus, going down to a 1-0 defeat against Getafe on Jan. 2. Six days later, Vinicius was back to inspire a 4-1 win over Valencia, which led to praise from his coach, not for flicks and solo dribbles, but goals.

“He scored twice,” Ancelotti said, “as if he was the team’s centre-forward.”

This is a key development. Vinicius has always stood out for his pace — what Tite calls his fifth gear — but the game is about sudden changes of rhythm and knowing when to make them. It is about slowing down at the right time, keeping the head still enough to execute the pass, the cross or the shot.

Vinicius has been criticised for his decision making or wayward finishing. This is hardly a surprise — it is more difficult to be accurate when moving as fast as he does, after all — but he is capable of a lethal marriage of pace with precision, which makes him so exciting.

Why, then, has it proved so hard for him to establish himself in a Brazil shirt? For one, he has had few opportunities. His debut came off the bench late in a September 2019 friendly defeat to Peru and re-emerged for the 2021 Copa America, making four appearances as a substitute.

Vinicius was finally given a start against Chile in a World Cup qualifier, only to be replaced at half-time. A couple more outings off the bench followed in qualifiers against Venezuela and Colombia, all of which means that the match against Argentina in November was just his second start for Brazil, and the first time he played more than 45 minutes.

He has had to wait patiently while lesser players have been handed an extended run and it seems clear Tite has been taken by surprise by the rise of “Vini”; Brazil’s coach was building a team where there was no obvious place in the starting line-up for the young man from São Gonçalo.

The template was clear in October’s 4-1 win over Uruguay, Brazil’s best display in some time. Raphinha played as an out-and-out winger on the right, with Lucas Paqueta on the left as a versatile, ball-playing midfielder. Inside of him, Neymar was free to roam and link up with a striker; Gabriel Jesus on that occasion, although Gabriel Barbosa has also been tried and Matheus Cunha looks like the best option.

Now Tite is obliged to rethink. With Brazil already safely qualified for the World Cup, it would be folly indeed not to have a long look at finding a way to get the best out of Vinicius. But he cannot pick 12. Someone from that Uruguay line up will have to drop out, and Tite’s challenge is to work out his best attacking blend.

It is, as they say, a nice problem to have and an there is an immediate opportunity presented by Neymar’s absence from the latest squad through injury. Moreover, the benefit could be twofold.

The rise of Vinicius is helping take some focus and pressure off Neymar. Qatar 2022 means so much for the legacy of Neymar as a Brazil player; it is the last he will play at his peak, and after the injuries and disappointments of 2014 and 2018, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Too much attention has been centred on Neymar, but the burden can now be shared. The only junior thing about Vinicius is his name. He is ready to become a senior partner in Brazil’s bid to end a two-decade wait for a sixth World Cup title.

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