THE duel between Vinicius Junior and Trent Alexander-Arnold is one of the most enticing features of Saturday’s Champions League final.
Two magnificently talented players are vitally important to the attacking play of their teams. If one of them is neutralised – or if one of them is given too much freedom – it could decide the outcome of the match.
In last year’s meeting in the quarter final, there was no doubt about who came out on top. Vinicius scared the life out of the Liverpool defence, scoring twice in the Bernabeu as Real won the first leg 3-1.
It is possible that Jurgen Klopp’s men over-compensated in the return leg back at Anfield, making so sure of defensive cover that they could not attack with the intensity needed to turn things round, and the game ended goalless.
That match in Madrid last April was a big moment for Vinicius. It was conclusive proof that Real had not gone mad three years earlier when they paid over £40million for a sixteen year old who had not made his professional debut.
Some thought that the club were still furious at having missed out on Neymar, and were paying well over the odds as a result.
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Real were certainly taking a gamble. Football is full of wonderkids who never came near to meeting the expectations that were cruelly heaped upon them.
The first hints that this would be money well spent came while Vinicius was still with Flamengo in Brazil – Real had to wait until he was 18 to take him across the Atlantic.
One night in 2018 in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League, he came off the bench away to Emelec of Ecuador and turned likely defeat into a win.
The home fans were not angry with him. They had that rare sense of having been in the presence of something special, and queued up to have their photo taken with him at the final whistle.
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It is a feeling that – just maybe – Liverpool fans will remember from last year. But come the final whistle in Paris this Saturday they will not want to look for consolation in defeat.
They will hope to look back at a convincing performance in which Alexander-Arnold has made more of an impact on the game than Vinicius Junior.
How, then, will Klopp play it? It hardly seems worthwhile to ask his right back to be cautious.
Alexander-Arnold attacks much better than he defends. Why ask him to sacrifice what he does best in order to do more in his weakest area?
HOW TO TAME VINICIUS?
Liverpool will need to have more defensive cover down that flank – and it is probably worth recalling that they had a second string pair of centre backs in the Bernabeu last year.
They also need to close down Vinicius Junior’s supply line. In that 3-1 win, it was Tony Kroos who used his superb range of passing to put that Brazilian past Liverpool’s defence.
The Reds will have to press much better than they did that night – and they cannot lose concentration for a second.
In this year’s campaign Real have kept showing that they do not have to be the better side over the full course of the game to come out on top.
They can win by taking advantage of mini phases, passages of play where they grab the momentum and run with it as fast as Vinicius can carry them.
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Will he tire himself out tracking Alexander-Arnold back down the flank? Or can he use his seventh gear to get round the back of the Liverpool defence?
It is shaping up to be a battle of worthy adversaries.
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