On a night when Mallorca's 15-year-old Luka Romero became the youngest player to take the field in the history of Spain's La Liga, it is easy to overlook the fact that the player who tipped the balance in the game is also a teenager.
Vinicius Junior does not turn 20 for another two-and-a-half weeks, but the young Brazilian has already made the transition from promising prospect to exciting reality, from wild gamble to sure thing. Since the return of La Liga, Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema have been in wonderful form in Real Madrid's run of four consecutive victories, but Vinicius has also played his part to put Real bang in contention for the title.
In the first game back, against Eibar, he was on the bench. Rodrygo, his even younger compatriot, beat him to a place in the starting lineup. And with Eden Hazard also ready for action, some thought that Vinicius would struggle to get some game time. But he was impressive off the bench against Valencia, and magnificent from the off against both Real Sociedad and Mallorca. His pace was a constant worry for the Sociedad defence, and he won the penalty from which Real took the lead. He then broke the deadlock against Mallorca, leading local sports paper Marca to comment that "the Brazilian, who was once again Madrid's best player, keeps showing that he took advantage of the confinement to do more than abdominals and post photos on social media. Vinicius finished like an angel when he was one-on-one with the opposing keeper."
It was the cool precision of his shot -- a dainty little chip, subtle and precise -- that caught the eye. Finishing has often been seen as his weak point. Indeed, some have argued that he has more weak points than strong.
Vinicius became the second-most expensive player to leave Brazil when Real paid an astonishing €45 million for him in 2017. The most expensive is Neymar, and there are significant differences between the two. Neymar was already 21 when he made his move from Brazil to Spain. He was an established star, the most important player in the national team and, with his club Santos, had won the Copa Libertadores. Vinicius was a 16-year-old who had not even made his senior debut for Flamengo. He could not make the move across the Atlantic until his 18th birthday, so Flamengo fans had more than a year to enjoy him -- and judge his performances.
His first game came in May 2017, a league clash at home to Atletico Mineiro in Rio de Janeiro's giant Maracana stadium. He was on the bench, but, anxious to see him in action, the fans kept up a constant chorus in favour of his introduction. Brought on for the last 10 minutes, he tried to run through a gamut of tricks. None of them came off, and by the final whistle he had already heard the first boos of his senior career.
There would be more. A huge fee had been paid for someone who had yet to prove himself. As Carlos Alberto Vieira wrote at the time in Brazilian sports daily Lance! when they negotiated the sale: "Flamengo were able to row very well on the perfect wave that appeared -- Real Madrid's fear of losing to the competition another Brazilian with the profile of being extra special."
The club had not been able to land Neymar and Gabriel Jesus. They would not miss out on Vinicius. After all, as Vieira added: "Real Madrid can take a chance. They have enough money to do it."
He was surely correct. At this point there was no way of knowing. The history of football is full of stories of stars who never were, of promising careers gone astray. And at this stage, after 10 frankly comical minutes of first-team action, it was impossible to judge the size of the promise.
Over the next year, Vinicius began to put flesh on the bones. There were good signs and bad games -- inconsistency is an inevitable part of the process. But in March 2018 there came the first sign of possible greatness. Flamengo were playing a tough match away to Emelec of Ecuador, and were losing 1-0 with time running out. Vinicius came off the bench. His usual position is wide on the left, cutting inside on to his stronger foot. This time, noticing the lack of pace of Emelec's ageing left-back, Flamengo's coach used him on the other flank. Vinicius won the game, inducing panic in the opposing defence and scoring twice -- which, to make it even better, both came off his left foot. The crowd realised they had seen something special. At the final whistle, in one of those great moments that football can provide, Emelec fans lined up to have their photo taken with the youngster who had just beaten their team.
And so with pace, skill, courage and indications of a big match temperament, Vinicius Junior made his way across the Atlantic. But if he had been able to shake off the Emelec defenders, he has not been able to do the same with the haters. The criticisms have never stopped. He was all hype, it was said. He would never be good enough for Real Madrid. Vinicius just shrugs it off.
"I don't pay attention to what people say on the internet," he said last year.
He is, of course, a work in progress. His decision-making could improve, and he can be in too much of a hurry. But haste is always the enemy of precision, and Vinicius moves at such pace that such problems are inevitable. It is that very pace -- the fifth gear, as Brazil coach Tite refers to it -- which makes him so valuable. In a team such as Real Madrid, full of wonderful passers of the ball, Vinicius gives the side the means of stretching the game and getting behind the defence.
Of course, sheer pace is not the same thing as footballing pace -- which contains frequent changes of rhythm, times when it is necessary to slow down and the need to pick out options. Vinicius is improving with all of these things. He is way ahead of where most thought he would be after two years in Spain. Following a brief spell in the Real Madrid B team, he was swiftly promoted and, until an injury, was the brightest thing in Los Blancos' disappointing 2018-19 campaign. He is now proving vital in the 2019-20 run in.
As Spanish sports paper AS put it after the Mallorca game: "The haters of Vinicius Junior had to bury their heads 30 metres under the earth."