"I am not a magician," said Carlo Ancelotti. "Just a coach who has to give players the confidence they need to express their qualities."

The Real Madrid boss was talking about arguably the standout player from Los Blancos' strong start to the season – and, brilliant as he continues to be, it's not Karim Benzema.

When Ancelotti spoke before Madrid's 2-1 win at Valencia, Vinicius Junior was on a run of four goals in as many games in LaLiga. That tally reached five in five after he fired in a late equaliser at Mestalla – as many goals as he had scored in 59 previous league matches.

For attacking players, nothing builds belief like the support of a coach and regularly sticking the ball in the net. Vinicius has both of those things going for him right now, and it's yielding the best form of his Madrid career.

 

NEW-MAR

Signed amid much fanfare from Flamengo three years ago, it has taken Vinicius time to fully find his feet in the Spanish capital. Patience is notoriously thin on the ground where Madrid are concerned, but fans have been more willing than usual to play the long game with the Brazil international, who has already played 88 times in Spain's top flight, a tally bettered by just six compatriots in the club's history.

Given Marca ran a headline this week asking whether Vinicius' form in 2021-22 meant Madrid had found "the new Neymar" – a player they once wanted to bring back to Spain, no less – it would appear the wait has been worth it.

Along with five goals, Vinicius has provided two assists and created 10 chances this term, all of them from open play. Only Eden Hazard (12) and Karim Benzema (14) have created more among Madrid's squad. Indeed, among players aged 21 and under, only Erling Haaland (seven goals, three assists) has been directly involved in more goals in 2021-22 in Europe's top five leagues.

 

After the first six matches of 2020-21, Vinicius had two goals and zero assists, with three chances created for team-mates. Granted, he had spent 52 fewer minutes on the pitch in those six games than he has this season, but he has undeniably made better use of the time given to him of late.

In the first six games of 2021-22, Vinicius' 17 shots have come amid a 2.64 expected goals (xG) total, but they account for 4.36 expected goals on target (xGOT), giving some indication as to the high quality of his attempts. (The xG metric assesses the quality of chances, and xGOT looks at the player's actual effort at goal.)

By contrast, at the same stage of last season, he had xG of 2.58 but xGOT of just 1.49 from 13 shots.

KYLIAN (IN THE NAME OF)

A strong indicator of Vinicius' form, his willingness to stand up in matches and why those Neymar comparisons are a little closer to the mark than they once were, is the upturn in his impact when running with the ball.

 

After six games in LaLiga last term, he had completed only five of 17 attempted take-ons. That success rate of 29.4 per cent was the lowest of any Madrid player to complete at least one dribble.

This season, that success rate has jumped to 47.6 per cent, Vinicius having completed 20 of 42 attempted take-ons. These are identical figures to one Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain – another Madrid transfer target.

Not only that, but 42 attempted take-ons is the most by any player in LaLiga in 2021-22, while Vinicius also ranks highest for take-ons in the box (eight) and those ending with a shot (four), and joint-highest for drives into the penalty area (also four).

 

HEARTBEAT

Vinicius is also averaging 62 touches of the ball per 90 minutes, an increase from 57 at this stage of the season in 2020-21. It follows that he is more heavily involved in the action at the top end of the pitch: he has had 36 involvements in shot-ending sequences in LaLiga, a figure bettered only by Real Betis' Nabil Fekir (38) and Madrid's own Benzema (51). On average, his tally has jumped from just over three per game in 2020-21 to more than seven in 2021-22. And, of those sequences this season, 10 have ended in a goal – only Benzema (14) can do better.

This is a player embracing responsibility, demanding the ball, and dazzling when he gets it: in short, he's showing all the best qualities of Neymar, Mbappe or anyone else Madrid may wish to buy, and offering fans everything they hoped for when he first arrived for €46million in 2018.

Perhaps competition is bringing the best out of Vinicius: with Gareth Bale back at the Santiago Bernabeu (although presently injured), Eden Hazard showing more encouraging signs and Marco Asensio fully fit again, there is no shortage of options for the Benzema support act. Or maybe Ancelotti really does have the magic touch to keep Vinicius in vibrant form for a whole season, beyond the fleeting glimpses displayed under Zinedine Zidane.

Whatever the reason, Vinicius has never looked so dangerous in a Madrid shirt. Worryingly for his opponents, there could be plenty more to come.

Karim Benzema bailed out Real Madrid once again, but the French striker insisted the 2-1 win at Valencia was richly deserved, as their unbeaten LaLiga run stretched to 23 games. 

The capital giants had trailed to a fine 66th-minute strike from Hugo Duro that looked set to take Valencia to the top of the table, but instead it is Madrid who sit on that perch with 13 points from five games. 

Captain Benzema teed up Vinicius Junior to slot in an 86th-minute leveller, with the help of a deflection, before roles were reversed for the winner two minutes later. 

A teasing cross from Vinicius was perfect for Benzema to attack, and although the ball went in off his shoulder rather than his forehead, as was the intention, they all count. 

Benzema has now scored in his last six games against Valencia, and Sunday's late show was sweet revenge for the 4-1 thumping that Madrid took at Mestalla last November. 

Coach Carlo Ancelotti described his team's spirit as "indomitable" and Benzema saw it similarly. 

The 33-year-old said: "I think it was a difficult game for us against a great team who are always difficult to beat here. 

"I think we deserved the three points that are important to us. Each game is a final, today was another final and we won. 

"All the players on the pitch and the people who came on at the end of the game to help us, it is a victory for the squad. If I can continue like this, scoring, the most important thing is that they are important for the club." 

Madrid are unbeaten in their last 18 away trips (W12 D6) in LaLiga, which equals their best such run in the competition's history, having previously reached 18 games unbeaten in 1997 (W11 D7) and 2016 (W13 D5). 

Benzema has six goals already this season in LaLiga from an expected goals (xG) total of 2.61, indicating he is having an outstanding run in front of goal. 

He has become the first player since Lionel Messi in 2011-12 to be directly involved in 11 or more goals in the first five games of a LaLiga campaign (six goals, five assists). 

This season has seen Vinicius very much come to the party too, bagging five goals from an xG of 2.3, also outperforming expectations substantially, and now adding a first assist. 

Quoted by AS, Vinicius said the win at Valencia was credit to Madrid's refusal to accept they are ever beaten.

"It is always difficult to play here, but we continue to believe and Madrid never give up," said the 21-year-old Brazilian.

"The main virtue is patience. It was the job of the coach and the whole team. We are doing things like never before. We played well, but things didn't work out and in the end we got the comeback. I am happy with the victory "

It was a victory that delighted Ancelotti, who has yet to lose a competitive game since returning to the club in the close season.

"We have not won because of quality, but because of the indomitable spirit of the team," said Ancelotti. "We continued to the end."

Carlo Ancelotti deflected the credit for Vinicius Jr's upturn in form as Real Madrid prepare to face Valencia on Sunday.

Madrid boast the longest unbeaten streak in LaLiga, having gone 22 games without defeat but they have won only one of their last nine visits to Valencian sides in the top flight.

Vinicius has been an integral part of their positive start to this term, winning three and drawing one, as he has scored four times in as many appearances.

And while Ancelotti has been pleased with the Brazil forward's form, he has not been surprised by his impressive performances so far.

"At the game level I see a player with impressive one-on-one ability," Ancelotti told Saturday's news conference.

"Today's Vinicius is the same that I saw when he was not here, what happens is that this season he started scoring and that has given him confidence.

"I am not a magician, just a coach who has to give players the confidence they need to express their qualities." 

 Asked whether Vinicius can continue his form, the Madrid head coach responded: "It depends on the personality, the character, the charisma, the quality that one has. 

"Vinicius has taken the team on our backs on several occasions and at this moment is what he has to do, when he is more veteran he will be able to put his character and experience."

And Ancelotti believes the future of Madrid is in safe hands with another Brazil youngster Rodyrgo coming through the ranks.

The 20-year-old has made four appearances this term, though he has not managed any goal involvements in those outings.

"Rodrygo is very fast, very complete and is very young," Ancelotti continued. "He is the present and the future of Real Madrid."

Karim Benzema applauded the performance of Vinicius Junior in Real Madrid's 5-2 win over Celta Vigo, labelling the Brazilian a "phenomenon".

Benzema would have been most people's star of the show, the Frenchman scoring a hat-trick and getting an assist.

But Vinicius was Madrid's other key man, scoring the goal that Benzema set up and also winning the penalty that allowed the France international to score his first LaLiga treble since April 2019.

Vinicius frequently ran at the Celta defence and often caused havoc when doing so, tallying 11 dribble attempts – a figure only he (14 vs Real Betis) and Nabil Fekir (14 vs Cadiz) have bettered in a single LaLiga game this term – and completing five of them.

His goal took Vinicius to four for the season, which is already a personal best for an individual campaign at Madrid, and second only to Benzema (five) in 2021-22.

After regularly being seen as a source of frustration, even for his team-mates, the 21-year-old appears to be coming of age and Benzema is relishing his improvement.

"Vinicius is a phenomenon," Benzema told Movistar. "I really like playing with him.

 

"He is young and I talk to him a lot, giving him advice, because I know what he's going through.

"But he helps us a lot. He's a great player and he's showed that he can play for Real Madrid."

Carlo Ancelotti echoed that sentiment but was also eager to share the praise out, with the Italian clearly thrilled by the exhibition produced by his forwards.

"Vinicius is in a spectacular moment and I am happy for him. He is playing with a lot of quality and is at a very high level," Ancelotti said.

"But not only Vinicius. Benzema was also fantastic, [Luka] Modric, Miguel Gutierrez. Everyone in attack was good."

Though Ancelotti did suggest he was a little perturbed by Madrid's sloppiness at the back, with a mix-up between Nacho Fernandez and Casemiro leading to Celta's opener, before the visitors carved them open to then go 2-1 later in the first half.

"I have a good taste in my mouth," he added. "The fans helped us a lot. When we were down on the scoreboard, they pushed us and we felt their encouragement.

"It was a great game, with mistakes and with good things. It had everything.

"Defensively we gave away two goals because we lacked balance. The defensive organisation has to improve. With the ball we are fine but without it we are not as good and that can harm us."

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti was livid with his side after they "gave away two points" in Sunday's 3-3 LaLiga draw with Levante.

Madrid seemed in control leading 1-0 at the break following Gareth Bale's first LaLiga goal since 2019 but conceded two goals within 12 minutes of the restart to trail 2-1.

Vinicius Junior pulled a goal back in the 73rd minute before Rober restored Levante's lead with the Brazilian finding a leveler with five minutes to go.

"It was crazy, after controlling the first half well," Ancelotti told Marca. "We have given away two points after a very good first half.

"It is difficult to explain, we had to pay attention to any detail. We leave with a bad taste in our mouths. We have to be more attentive."

Los Blancos had started their LaLiga campaign with a strong 4-1 win away to Alaves but the Italian bemoaned his side's second-half attitude against Levante.

"The first half was very good," Ancelotti said. "In the second we did not enter with a good attitude. It was not a good response."

He added: "The third [goal] is bad luck. In the first [goal] we adjust the line badly and in the second [goal] we are three against two, and that cannot be."

Despite his frustrations, Ancelotti was delighted with the impact of 21-year-old Brazilian winger Vinicius Junior as a 59th-minute substitute and hoped he can build on his promise.

The Flamengo junior only scored three league goals from 35 appearances last term but has already equaled that output in two LaLiga games this season.

"He has a lot of quality," Ancelotti said. "He must score, but I don't know if he will be a great scorer.

"With that quality he must score many goals. It will be important for us. Sometimes it is more important to finish the games than to start them.

"It is not something that gives much importance, whether you are the owner or not."

Vinicius Junior spared Real Madrid's blushes on Sunday as his sublime 85th-minute strike secured a pulsating 3-3 draw against Levante.

Los Blancos kicked off their LaLiga campaign with a 4-1 victory over Alaves last weekend and they looked like they would cruise to back-to-back wins when Gareth Bale gave them an early lead at Estadi Ciutat de Valencia.

The hosts had other ideas, though, and went ahead thanks to goals from Roger Marti and Jose Campana inside the opening 12 minutes of the second half.

Substitute Vinicius drew the visitors level in the 73rd minute, yet it appeared Levante would claim a memorable three points when Rober Pier slotted home from close range six minutes later.

However, Brazil international Vinicius ensured a share of the spoils with a wonderful strike from the tightest of angles, while Levante goalkeeper Aitor Fernandez received a straight red card for handling the ball way outside his penalty area in the closing stages as he bid to stop a Madrid counter. 

Can Borussia Dortmund keep a hold of Erling Haaland for another season?

Europe's elite are queuing up to sign the Norway sensation.

Dortmund's disappointing season could be about to force their hand.

 

TOP STORY – DORTMUND TRYING TO RETAIN HAALAND

Borussia Dortmund will try to keep Erling Haaland for another season but their hopes are fading amid the club's struggles to finish in the Bundesliga's top four, according to Fabrizio Romano.

As it stands, Dortmund are set to miss out on Champions League qualification, with the German side fifth and seven points adrift of fourth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt following Saturday's loss.

Haaland is a player in demand, linked with Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Mirror reports United are set to part with star goalkeeper David de Gea. The Red Devils are reportedly prepared to pay a large chunk of De Gea's remaining contract, with Dean Henderson pushing to become the club's first choice.

Haaland is ahead of Lionel Messi on City's transfer list, claims The Mirror. Pep Guardiola's City have been heavily linked with Barcelona superstar Messi, who is out of contract at season's end. But City now appear determined to prise Haaland from Dortmund as Sergio Aguero prepares to leave. Aguero has been linked with the likes of Chelsea, InterBarca, PSG and Juventus on a free transfer.

Neymar has put contract talks with PSG on hold, according to Ara, which claims he is willing to return to Barca.

- It comes as Marca says PSG are eyeing Madrid forward Vinicius Junior amid Kylian Mbappe's links with the LaLiga champions.

Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar has reportedly decided to stay with the Ligue 1 giants.

Neymar's contract is due to expire in 2022 and the forward has repeatedly been linked with a return to Barcelona.

But the Brazil international seems set to remain at PSG.

 

TOP STORY – NEYMAR AGREES TO FOUR-YEAR EXTENSION WITH PSG

Neymar has agreed to a four-year extension with PSG, according to TNT Sports Brasil correspondent Marcelo Bechler.

The deal will keep Neymar, who arrived at PSG from Barcelona in 2017, tied to the Parc des Princes until 2026.

Neymar has won nine domestic trophies, including three Ligue 1 titles, since arriving in Paris.

 

ROUND-UP

- Also out of contract next year is Neymar's star PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe. TNT Sports Brasil reports selling the forward, who has been linked to Real Madrid previously, would give the Ligue 1 giants the chance to sign Barcelona star Lionel Messi or Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos, or both.

- Real Madrid could also be set for other business. AS reports LaLiga's champions are prepared to sell Vinicius Junior in the next transfer window, with the 20-year-old having netted just three times in 25 appearances in all competitions this term.

- Arkadiusz Milik joined Marseille on loan from Napoli in January, but Juventus are still considering a move for the forward, according to CalcioMercato.

- Dele Alli was reportedly wanted by PSG in January, but the midfielder ended up staying at Tottenham. The Telegraph reports Spurs chairman Daniel Levy blocked Alli's move due to the club's injuries and run of poor form.

- A free agent, Daniel Sturridge's future remains unclear. The Daily Mail reports the forward is wanted by MLS clubs.

For so long, Real Madrid have been linked with Kylian Mbappe but will the LaLiga champions bring the French forward to the Santiago Bernabeu?

Mbappe is reportedly open to the idea of making the move to the Spanish capital.

However, Liverpool could be ready to hijack any transfer.

 

TOP STORY – MBAPPE TO MADRID?

Kylian Mbappe dominates the front pages of Tuesday's Diario AS and Mundo Deportivo as Real Madrid try to sign the Paris Saint-Germain star.

Mbappe – out of contract in 2022 – has been tipped to swap Ligue 1 holders PSG for LaLiga champions Madrid at the end of the season.

While the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic impacts Madrid, the Spanish giants are still working on a deal to prise the Frenchman to the Santiago Bernabeu, with Vinicius Junior a possible makeweight.

Mundo Deportivo says Premier League champions Liverpool are ready to pounce should Madrid fail to sign Mbappe.

 

ROUND-UP

- Onda Cero reports PSG have offered Madrid captain Sergio Ramos a three-year deal worth €15million a season. Ramos is set to become a free agent at the end of the season and the superstar has been linked with the likes of Manchester United and Juventus.

- Both Madrid and Barcelona are considering a shock move for Roma striker Edin Dzeko, according to Mundo Deportivo. Dzeko has had a falling out with under-fire head coach Paulo Fonseca, prompting links to Juve and Inter.

Thomas Tuchel is set to be named Frank Lampard's Chelsea replacement, with Fabrizio Romano claiming an announcement is "just a matter of time". Tuchel was sacked by PSG in December.

- The Athletic says Juve have identified Villarreal centre-back Pau Torres as a long-term replacement for veteran Giorgio Chiellini. Torres has also been linked with United, Manchester City, Barca, Madrid and Chelsea.

Tottenham have approached PSG's Angel Di Maria, who is out of contract at the end of the season, according to L'Equipe. Di Maria has history in England, having spent a difficult season playing for United in 2014-15.

- Sport 1 says Borussia Dortmund are interested in Sassuolo midfielder Manuel Locatelli. The likes of Juve and City have also emerged as suitors.

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