Vinicius and Toni Kroos control the clasico and give Real Madrid hope for Manchester City second leg

Teenager's alliance with World Cup-winning German proves crucial to beating Barca, with Euro clash in England looming

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Four nights earlier, Vinicius Junior was bemoaning his luck, claiming a conspiracy. “Referees come here and make decisions against us because we’re the club with the most league titles and European Cups,” he said, exiting his home Bernabeu stadium after defeat by Manchester City.

It was a puzzling statement, and excused by noting the ‘Junior’ he wears on his jersey. Vinicius is 19. He is raw and unschooled in much of what he does and some of what he says.

On his next big night at the Bernabeu, after City’s exhibition of mature game management, Vinicius got some schooling. His teacher was Toni Kroos, World-Cup winning team-mate and specialist in the geometry of the perfect pass.

Less than 20 minutes remained of Sunday’s highly-charged clasico against Barcelona, who at 0-0 were holding on to the leadership of La Liga, two points ahead of Madrid.

The spectacle had been compelling, but the quality erratic. Passes went astray, Lionel Messi was subdued and Vinicius, while threatening with his speed, added to his runs superfluous step-overs, and flawed decisions with his final pass.

Seeing all this, 30-year-old Kroos took control. The German had the ball at his feet some 35 yards from goal, wide on the left. Vinicius was outside him, ready to make an overlap, and readier still for Kroos to instruct him on how and when to make it.

The German raised an arm, like an orchestra conductor with a baton. He counted out the beats: On Your Marks. Get Set. And with a firm gesture indicated to the 19-year-old Brazilian ‘Go’.

While Kroos had the ball at his foot, secure and poised, time had stood still, as if the pair of them were out on the training pitch, practising a manoeuvre they had repeated over and over again to get it right.

Instead, 80,000 were watching, Madridistas on the edge of their seats, sensing their team had had since half-time taken hold of a game but now had a way of capitalising on it. But  Vinicius dashed, Kroos played the pass, and then the teenager had some luck, his shot deflecting off Gerard Pique to squirm past Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Barcelona goal. At 1-0, Madrid suddenly jumped past Barcelona to the top of the league.

For Madrid’s manager, Zinedine Zidane, the move was a vindication. It is sometimes said of Zidane he is not a great student of detail in training. Yet the Kroos-Vinicius dialogue of gestures was minutely rehearsed. “We are always practicing that,” said Vinicius, “and this time it worked out.”

Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - Real Madrid v Barcelona - Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain - March 1, 2020  Real Madrid's Toni Kroos in action with Barcelona's Arturo Vidal   REUTERS/Sergio Perez
Real Madrid's Toni Kroos, left, played a key role in the 2-0 clasico victory pver Barcelona on Sunday. Reuters

Overall, it was quite a night for Zidane, and he would be allowed one of his enigmatic smiles on hearing Pique describe the first-half performance as "the worst Madrid I have seen." Pique, 32, has been playing in clasicos for 12 years, and watching them, as a born-and-bred Barcelonista, all his life.

His Barcelona had not lost a Liga clasico at the Bernabeu since 2014. They sensed a vulnerability. “We had a difficult week,” admitted Zidane, Madrid having lost top spot with a 1-0 loss at Levante eight days earlier and suffered against City, who came back from a goal down to beat Madrid 2-1 in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

The manager made changes from that team, one of them to restore Kroos. He had stuck with Vinicius when the alternative was to pick Gareth Bale, hugely experienced and with proven big-match pedigree.

Zidane also made one of those eerily effective substitutions that he regularly conjures up, as he did to win the Madrid derby a month ago, introducing Vinicius and Lucas Vazquez at half-time, a match-winning decision.

Here, in stoppage time, he brought on Mariano, barely even a squad player all season. And with his first touch of the ball, Mariano received a throw-in and jetted off on a solo run which ended with a neatly taken goal. It was his first 30 seconds of action of the whole Liga season.

“It is not decisive,” said Zidane of the effect of the 2-0 win on the title-race. Twelve fixtures remain, one point separates Madrid and Barcelona. But Madrid feel bolder, and if they can pick up three points at Real Betis this weekend, and keep profiting from alliances such as Kroos and Vinicius’, they will go to Manchester for their second leg with genuine hope.