MADRID: In a Real Madrid squad filled with experienced players seeking their fifth European title, two talented young Brazilians will be getting their first shot at Champions League glory.
Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo, a pair of 21-year-old forwards who arrived in Spain a year apart after being signed as teenage sensations in Brazil, had breakout seasons and will experience their first Champions League final on Saturday against Liverpool in suburban Paris.
“We imagined that this could happen one day, but we didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” said Rodrygo, who arrived in 2019 from Brazilian club Santos. “We worked hard for this moment . . . we are very happy with what we have been going through here.”
Vinícius arrived a year earlier from Brazilian club Flamengo. He was also signed as a teenager and waited a period in Brazil before making the move to Spain after turning 18. They both played in Madrid’s “B” team before making the main squad.
“This will be the most important match of my career,” Vinícius said. “It’s not easy to arrive so young at a club like Real Madrid, but you get the advantage of having a chance to play in many Champions League finals. I hope this is the first of many for me.”
Madrid hopes that will be true as well, since it took a bet on the young Brazilians and spent 45 million euros ($48 million) on each without really knowing if they could live up to expectations. A similar move to sign another young Brazilian from Flamengo, Reinier, didn’t work out as well. He has been playing on loan with Borussia Dortmund.
Vinícius, Madrid's best dribbler, showed his potential from the start but struggled to establish himself as a regular starter. He had too many misses in front of the goal and fans started getting upset. But he improved considerably this season under coach Carlo Ancelotti, whose attacking line clicked with the Brazilian playing alongside Karim Benzema.
Vinícius scored 21 goals this season, more than the total in his previous three seasons with the club. He was the second-best scorer in the Spanish league with 17 goals, behind the 27 of Benzema. The Brazilian also had some key assists in the team’s run to the Champions League final.
Ancelotti said he already knew Vinícius had quality, but was “surprised with the consistency” he showed this season.
Rodrygo didn't start as often as Vinícius but quickly became Ancelotti’s go-to player off the bench.
He scored seven goals in his last 10 matches in all competitions, including two against Manchester City to keep Madrid alive late in the second leg of the Champions League semifinals. He also scored an important goal against Chelsea in the second leg of the quarterfinals.
It wasn't yet clear if Ancelotti would start with Rodrygo in Saturday’s final or opt to use midfielder Federico Valverde in a more defensive setup.
“He could start. Whenever he came off the bench he made a difference,” Ancelotti said of Rodrygo. “I’m not worried because I know what he is capable of.”
Rodrygo said he hoped to get as much time as possible on the field to try to help his team.
“The team is bit more aggressive in attack when I play,” he said. “I can add more speed on the flanks and in one-on-one situations. Let's see what the coach decides.'”
Rodrygo and Vinícius, who will benefit from Kylian Mbappé's decision not to join Madrid next season, said they have taken full advantage of the advice from the team’s veteran players, including fellow Brazilians Marcelo and Casemiro.
“They make us calmer,” Rodrygo said. “They’ve gone through these moments many times before, they’ve won these finals before.”
Marcelo and Casemiro will be among the nine Madrid players with a chance to win a fifth Champions League final on Saturday.
“I tell them it’s about enjoying the moment, enjoying the game,” Casemiro said. “They were very important to help us get here. They will give all they have and enjoy the moment.”