Real fledglings face off against Ajax's talented young guns

Real Madrid's 18-year-old Brazilian striker Vinicius Junior is the poster boy of coach Santiago Solari's meritocracy, an approach that puts reputation far below humility and hard work.
Real Madrid's 18-year-old Brazilian striker Vinicius Junior is the poster boy of coach Santiago Solari's meritocracy, an approach that puts reputation far below humility and hard work.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

AMSTERDAM • Real Madrid against Ajax would typically be a clash of stars against prodigies but, when they face each other in the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie today, the difference will be harder to distinguish.

Ajax will parade their latest crop of young gems at the Johan Cruyff Arena, where Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt will attempt to live up to already-swelling reputations while the likes of Donny van de Beek, Andre Onana and Kasper Dolberg could also enhance theirs.

For Real, Gareth Bale aside, the Galacticos are gone and are replaced by a handful of prospects trying to forge their way through.

Real coach Santiago Solari, whose predecessors Zinedine Zidane and Julen Lopetegui both used young players only when they had to, has made youth his first choice since being tasked with rejuvenating his team in November.

Vinicius Junior has had less playing time than Ajax's de Jong, with only six starts in LaLiga and one in the Champions League, but the Brazilian's impact has been arguably just as dramatic as the Dutchman.

Signed last summer for €45 million (S$69 million), Vinicius was supposed to spend his debut season settling in with the reserve side, a strategy adhered to perhaps too rigidly by Lopetegui.

Solari, in charge of Real Madrid B at the time, was the coach that received him, witnessing first-hand as the 18-year-old scored twice against Atletico B, curled in a free-kick against Unionistas and equalised against Celta Vigo B.

Vinicius was raw but, when Lopetegui was sacked, Solari had greater legitimacy to promote him.

He had faith too. Solari gave Vinicius 90 minutes in his first match in charge, more than Lopetegui had in all 14 of his.

Almost four months on, Vinicius has 22 appearances for the first team, the latest pair against Barcelona at the Nou Camp and Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In both, he was Real's greatest threat, to the extent that even Bale's starting spot has been questioned.

"His adaptation has been very fast," Solari said. "He is 18 and he has adapted to a new country, a new culture, a different type of football. He has shown his talent, but we have to take care of him."

Vinicius is the poster boy of Solari's meritocracy, an approach that puts reputation far below humility and hard work.

Among the other fresh faces to come in are Spaniard Sergio Reguilon at left-back, Marcos Llorente in defensive midfield, and midfielder Dani Ceballos. Together, Vinicius, Reguilon, Llorente and Ceballos have played 64 games since Solari was appointed.

"They are the future of Real Madrid," Solari said. "Therefore, they have to be part of the present."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2019, with the headline 'Real fledglings face off against Ajax's talented young guns'. Print Edition | Subscribe