Ousmane Dembele and Vinicius Junior: the next Messi and Ronaldo?
Background photo: Little Savage, CC BY-SA 4.0
The rate at which young talents make names for themselves in Europe eclipses recent eras. Elite clubs continue to invest heavily in young prospects. Barcelona's reputation for doing so reaches back more than a decade to Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets' emergence from La Masia. Now, Real Madrid treads a similar path. La Fabrica repeatedly connects young players to the senior squad for the first time since the pre-Galactico era.
Even when Barcelona's fabled academy isn't stocked with the player the manager requires, Barca scout abroad for younger players. Signings such as Kevin-Prince Boateng and Arturo Vidal occur, too, but they are always short-term solutions. Neymar represented the club's long-term future until he departed for Paris Saint-Germain. The club replaced him with Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, 26 and 21 respectively in their second seasons with the club. Of the two, more was and is expected from Dembele. The Frenchman struggled early thanks to an injury crisis but also due to his immaturity. He missed meetings and practices. Even so, when he takes the pitch, his potential is there for all to see.
In 23 2017/18 appearances, Dembele recorded only four goals. Subpar production and disciplinary problems fuelled speculation his time at the Nou Camp would be short. Fans expected him to be sold last summer. The club kept their faith. That decision returned dividends this season. Dembele took his game to another level, stepping up at vital moments, producing the necessary spark to keep the team firing.
While the youngster changed fans' opinions at the Nou Camp, arch-rivals Real Madrid debuted their own sensational prodigy. Vinicius Junior's slashing runs from the left flank set the Bernabeu afire when new boss Santiago Solari inserted him into the starting XI. Blessed with speed, close control and aggression, the 18-year-old gives defenders waking nightmares. The Flamengo product breathed life into a dispirited Real Madrid side. Los Blancos are not the same without him.
The Champions League quarterfinal proved as much. With him in the lineup in Amsterdam, Real found a way to beat Ajax on a day that cannot be considered among the visitors' best. When he came up lame in the first half at the Bernabeu in the second leg, the Merengues failed to pressure the Dutch giants. Free to attack, Erik ten Hag's side romped to a 4-1 victory, ousting the three-time defending champions from the tournament.
Last week, Vinicius and Dembele faced off twice in four days, first in the Copa del Rey quarterfinal second leg then in a Liga Clasico. The Brazilian proved Real's brightest player in the Copa match, constantly threatening Barca's defence. Nelson Semedo and Gerard Pique slept uneasily anticipating the rematch. Luckily for the pair, Vinicius' finishing deserted him.
Meanwhile, Dembele wreaked havoc at the other end. Luis Suarez's brace captured the headlines but the Frenchman's play turned the game in the Blaugrana's favour in the second half. He assisted on Suarez's opener, his pace and dribbling drawing defenders, allowing the Uruguayan space. He also had a hand in the second, racing down the left flank before sending a cross into the box that Raphael Varane pushed into his own net. So, technically two assists.
The second match was more closely defended, resulting in just the one goal, a brilliant strike from Ivan Rakitic. No matter, Dembele and Vinicius continued to slice and dice defenders much to the crowd's delight.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo still write history even though the Portuguese crossed the Balearic and Ligurian Seas from Madrid to ply his trade in Turin. At some point, Messi will retire from the Nou Camp as well. El Clasico will need two figureheads to personify the rivalry. The early signs point to Ousmane Dembele and Vinicius Junior.