Vinicius Jr can win two trophies in one Champions League final – the Ballon d’Or awaits

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The description many another would apply to Jude Bellingham is one he bestows upon a teammate. “The best in the world,” he said of Vinicius Jr in May. And October. Carlo Ancelotti agrees; as the Italian is the diplomat supreme, it was unlikely to cause ructions in the Real Madrid dressing room when he nominated the winger, even though he overlooked Bellingham in the process.

And if the Brazilian could prove a more controversial choice again next season, when Kylian Mbappe will surely be added to the list of Real’s candidates, for now Vinicius is the 21st-century boy who could finally deliver the Ballon d’Or to the next generation.

Which, as the last 15 have been won by players born in either 1985 (in Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric) or 1987 (Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema), would represent a changing of the guard. And if Vinicius is not the eventual winner, it may be because Euro 2024 allows someone else – potentially Mbappe or Bellingham – to seize the limelight, though Brazil have their own summer tournament at the Copa America.

A Ballon d’Or frontrunner now, Vinicius may be more likely to secure Uefa’s player of the year award, where excellence in European club football is recognised. But, and while there is no official prize for it, he has sustained excellence for longer. He could win his second Champions League on Saturday. Over a three-year period, he has arguably been the best player in the best competition; not in every season, but as a cumulative body of work.

But if 2021-22 was Benzema’s annus mirabilis, with the Frenchman’s 15 goals powering many a Real comeback, it was Vinicius who delivered the winner in the final. If 2022-23 was Manchester City’s year, Vinicius’ brilliance remained a constant. This season, his semi-final double – man of the match in each leg – could lead to a hat-trick if he produces a similarly dominant display against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley.

And big-game brilliance forms part of the case for Vinicius. Some of it lies in the numbers: not quite in the way it did for Messi and Ronaldo over a decade and more, or Benzema in a wonderful year, but as an illustration of his impact, to support the evidence of the naked eye.

In 2021-22, Vinicius recorded six assists, behind only Bruno Fernandes. Last season, he had another six, second only to Kevin Bruyne, and seven goals, topped only by Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah. This year, he has five goals and four assists; only Marcel Sabitzer has more. Only Harry Kane has been directly involved in more goals; he is out of the competition now, courtesy in part of Vinicius.

Vini’s goals helped knock out Bayern (Getty Images)
Vini’s goals helped knock out Bayern (Getty Images)

But the numbers matter less than his propensity to excel where Real players are judged: in the knockout stages. In 2021-22, the Brazilian played a part in all three goals in the 3-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain, set up Benzema’s decider in the quarter-final, ran from his own half to score in the 4-3 semi-final defeat to City and then delivered the final’s one goal.

Last season brought two goals at Anfield in the 5-2 demolition of Liverpool, three assists over the two legs of the quarter-final against Chelsea and Real’s only goal against City.

In the current campaign, Vinicius set up two goals in the 3-3 draw with City, when he was arguably the best player on the pitch; he scored two against Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena. And if sometimes the late semi-final heroics can come from others – Rodrygo in 2022, Joselu in 2024 – the consistency of Vinicius’ contributions, and when Real have invariably been paired with elite teams, is remarkable.

Another factor is his immediate opponents. He has fought plenty of epic duels with Kyle Walker, though it was an indication of his versatility, and an option for Real when Mbappe arrives, that he spent much of the most recent tie against City in the middle. He has proved the scourge of Trent Alexander-Arnold. He tormented Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich. He can rise to the occasion.

And if the accusation levelled at some players who seem to dominate statistically is that they are flat-track bullies, Vinicius is the master of the do-or-die ties.

Vinicius starred against Man City (Getty Images)
Vinicius starred against Man City (Getty Images)

At 23, he already has 10 goals and 12 assists in Champions League knockout stages; he has scored as many as Samuel Eto’o or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, more than Alessandro Del Piero or Sergio Aguero, Antoine Griezmann or Zinedine Zidane. Yet the assists figure is the more remarkable: two below Messi, two above Ronaldo; only the Argentinian, Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller ever have more.

The devastating bursts of pace are allied with an ability to unlock defences. It has made Vinicius arguably the most effective attacker at the highest level of club competition. It could make him Real’s ninth Ballon d’Or winner, even if the Brazilian Ronaldo and Fabio Cannavaro were bought after the World Cups that were the reasons they were honoured.

But then they were the club who bought stars.

Now Vinicius, signed at 17, albeit for a huge amount for an untried player, represents a case of potential being identified and realised. He is the star Real have made, and perhaps his second Champions League final will confirm him as the brightest star of all right now.