When news of Eden Hazard’s omission from the Real Madrid squad to face Liverpool on Tuesday night filtered through to Jurgen Klopp, you’d have forgiven the German tactician for allowing himself a wry smile.
Well, we say ‘wry smile’, one of 90min’s Liverpool moles actually sent us this clip of him shortly after he was told…
The Belgian may be struggling for both fitness and form this season – and has been since his 2019 switch to the Spanish giants, if we’re honest – but hearing of the twinkle-toed forward’s absence would undoubtedly have provided a boost to the Liverpool squad ahead of the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie.
Instead, the Reds’ fragile backline would be tasked with shackling Vinicius Junior, a seemingly far more attractive proposition given the youngster’s inability to produce when Real need him most.
Hazard’s injury woes have meant Vinicius has been a mainstay in Zinedine Zidane’s side this season, yet of the 68 goals Real had mustered in all competitions throughout the 2020/21 campaign, the Brazilian had contributed just four.
And it’s not just the current campaign in which he’s flattered to deceive. Since arriving from Flamengo in 2018 in a €46m (£39.75m) move which subsequently made him the most expensive player under the age of 19 ever, the pacy forward hasn’t really lived up to expectations, with Real’s purchase of Hazard in 2019 testament to that fact.
The 20-year-old has managed just seven La Liga goals in three seasons in the Spanish capital, with his current assists tally bettering his goals tally by just one.
So, a nice easy comfortable night for Trent Alexander-Arnold to concentrate on the attacking side of his game with little to worry about behind him then? Ermm…
Just as the ‘TAA should defo be in the England squad cos he can kick it good’ brigade were hanging out the bunting following the Liverpool right-back’s display against Arsenal at the weekend, he was absolutely torn to shreds by Vinicius in one of the finest individual performances of this year’s Champions League.
His strike to open the scoring on the night was a microcosm of his display. Firstly, he showed the awareness and the anticipation to run in behind Liverpool’s high line as Toni Kroos picked up the ball in his own half, before Vinicius produced a touch of absolute class to chest the midfielder’s pass away from the retreating Nat Phillips and smash the ball beyond Alisson.
Many of the plaudits went to Kroos for his inch-perfect through-ball – and he really shouldn’t be denied them given the quality of the pass – but it was the run, the composure and the quality of Vinicius that meant the pass did the rounds among the game’s highlights.
The Brazilian tormented the Liverpool back line all evening with his mazy runs, boundless energy and quality on the ball, and he was rewarded with his second of the night shortly after the hour mark.
In truth, the strike which secured his first brace for Madrid was very little more than abject defending from Phillips as he allowed Vinicius the freedom of the penalty area before the Brazilian swept the ball home, and that’s not something we’ll discard from our assessment of the youngster’s display.
He was up against an occasionally shambolic Liverpool defence and a right-back whose defensive ability has been called into question with regularity of late.
However, it was up to Vinicius to expose Liverpool’s weakness – which is exactly what he did.
On one of football’s grandest stages and in the eerie setting of an empty Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, Zidane needed one of his big-name players to step up and drag his side towards the Champions League semi-final.
Vinicius may not have been the first name that sprung to mind when the Real boss was thinking who could grab the game by the scruff of the neck prior to kick off, but he produced the goods when his side needed him most.