There’s a special connection between Real Madrid and the Champions League and with a sprinkling of that stardust, Vinicius Junior magically transformed into a matchwinner on Tuesday night.
The Brazilian is skittish in front of goal, to put it kindly, with Madrid fans braced for the worst whenever he has the ball in dangerous areas, but he bagged a brace to earn his team a crucial 3-1 victory over Liverpool in the Champions League.
Thanks to this double from an unlikely source, Madrid put one foot in the semi-finals with a dominant performance against Jurgen Klopp’s stricken Reds.
Benzema was entitled to complain, given he’s been more than pulling his weight since Cristiano Ronaldo left in 2018 with nobody stepping up to help him, but Vinicius made a pair of decisive contributions during the finest performance of his Madrid career to date.
With just 13 goals in his first 105 games for Real in all competitions, the 20-year-old has been operating far below the level Zinedine Zidane requires, but in this quarter-final first leg at Alfredo di Stefano something changed. Permanently, Madrid will hope.
The Blancos’ opening goal was a thing of beauty, crafted by Toni Kroos with a sensational dipping pass, but finished expertly by Vinicius, with this newfound maturity and calm. The former Flamengo striker plucked the ball out of the sky with a perfect piece of shoulder control and dispatched it with aplomb.
Vinicius might not even have been on the pitch had defender Raphael Varane not been diagnosed with Covid-19 on Tuesday morning.
Madrid might have had the second when Ozan Kabak clumsily felled Benzema in the box – an offence which strangely went undetected by VAR – but they managed to double their advantage soon after anyway, when Marco Asensio capitalised on a Trent Alexander-Arnold blunder.
The English right-back – under the microscope at home with national team coach Gareth Southgate poised to leave him out of his Euro 2020 squad – headed towards his own goal and only found the perfectly-placed Spaniard.
Asensio took his recent run of fine form a step further with his fourth goal in four matches, dinking the ball cutely over Alisson Becker and then smashing it home.
It capped a perfect first half for Madrid but Liverpool, with Thiago Alcantara introduced in place of Naby Keita just before half-time, came out to play after the break and quickly pulled one back through Mohamed Salah.
The Egyptian was not able to avenge his 2018 Champions League final injury by Sergio Ramos directly, but the defender had to watch on helplessly as Salah stabbed home from close range to breathe new life into the visitors’ challenge.
Indeed, it was only in the second period, after Liverpool found a foothold in the game, that they began to test a Madrid defence featuring only one first-choice player in Mendy.
Lucas Vazquez, who played Salah onside, is a winger, while Nacho and Eder Militao are stand-ins for Ramos and Varane, but before Liverpool could convert their best spell in the game into an equaliser, Vinicius struck again.
This time, it was a careful low finish from Luka Modric’s pass, perhaps catching Alisson by surprise. It certainly caught Madrid’s fans by surprise, given they’ve spent the past three years tearing their hair out watching the erratic dynamo miss excellent opportunities.
The two goals he scored here matched his Champions League total from 17 previous outings in the competition, and comprised 13.3 per cent of his total Real Madrid strikes.
That’s how much of a shock this level of delivery was. Magic like that is why Real Madrid have won this competition a record 13 times.