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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Vinicius Jr, Bellingham, Rodrygo: Real Madrid’s front line is something special

After Vinicius Junior scored one and assisted two goals in Real Madrid’s emphatic 4-0 home victory over Girona, Carlo Ancelotti described him as “the best in the world”.

Madrid’s manager was then asked who would be his choice for second best — with the questioner clearly hoping for another mention of Kylian Mbappe. The 64-year-old Italian wasn’t having any of it.

“Bellingham is second and Rodrygo third,” he said. “The player you have named (Mbappe) is from another team. For me, the ones I have are the best.”

Saturday night’s win — sealed by Rodrygo, having been sparked into life by Vinicius Jr’s spectacular long-range drive and outside-of-the-boot assist for Bellingham — gave plenty of strength to Ancelotti’s answer.

The three players combined sublimely and their goals proved pivotal in moving Los Blancos five points clear at the top of La Liga. Not since the last game of the so-called ‘BBC’ — the forward line of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo — in the 2018 Champions League final in Kyiv have Madrid fans had such a special feeling about their attack.

It is a special feeling that has been growing since January’s Supercopa de Espana victory over Barcelona. After that 4-1 victory, they celebrated on the pitch under a Grand Theft Auto-inspired banner, relishing their growing dynamic.

Last summer, with the surprise departure of Benzema, the last member of that legendary ‘BBC’ trident left. Ancelotti was forced to bet on the so-called ‘new generation’ to lead up front. At first it was seen as a risky move, due to the youth of the players. Rodrygo turned 23 only last month, Vinicius Jr is the same age, and Bellingham arrived as a 20-year-old midfielder who had never massively impressed with his goalscoring.

Those doubts have already been well banished, and Saturday’s performance at the Estadio Bernabeu was perhaps their biggest triumph so far, in a match that will surely be decisive in Madrid’s hunt for the league title.

Barely six minutes into the game, Vinicius Jr received the ball on the left flank, looked towards goal and, from 25 yards out, unleashed a whirling shot into the far right corner. It was met by a huge roar from fans at Madrid’s renovated home stadium, with the roof closed and atmosphere kept in.

Vinicius Jr played the kind of game that so clearly defines his mercurial talent, and he was also a big contributor in helping strengthen Madrid’s defence, often tracking back. He attempted nine dribbles and came up big with five, making three key passes, as well as his goal and two assists. Yan Couto, his marker at right-back, had a torrid time. It was a performance matched by his English team-mate Bellingham, who he found making a typical box-crashing run from deep with a magical assist for 2-0.

Bellingham’s contribution went beyond his attacking role, too, and he missed just two passes out of a possible 34, ending the match with a 94 per cent success rate. Many of these passes were fashioned in the tight spots of space high up in the Girona half, with Bellingham always surrounded by opposition players.

Though he was only fouled once, he had to leave the pitch in the 57th minute, having suffered a sprained ankle, but the club is hopeful he will be fit for Tuesday’s Champions League trip to RB Leipzig.

Rodrygo had a more discreet game from Madrid’s right flank, contributing just one shot on goal (which he scored), and one successful dribble. That said, he didn’t stop trying throughout the game and, with Ancelotti’s confidence rewarded, the two embraced warmly during a short stoppage after Madrid’s fourth goal.

Rodrygo scored Madrid’s fourth in their emphatic win over Girona (Florencia Tan Jun/Getty Images)

Rodrygo’s battling attitude on the pitch was reflected later in the mixed zone when he was also asked about Mbappe: “We want the best players here,” he said. “(If he comes) it’s good because it shows that this team will be stronger every day.”

There was plenty of reason to be excited, with each member of Madrid’s elite attack performing to their best. However, since the start of the season, the three youngsters have combined for just 12 starts all season, with Rodrygo the only player to have gone without absences, and Vinicius Jr having already missed 11 games through injury.

Saturday was Madrid’s 34th match in all competitions so far. Bellingham has scored 20 goals and provided 8 assists, Rodrygo has 13 goals and seven assists, and Vinicius Jr has scored 12 and assisted seven.

In total, they add up to 45 goals scored over 2023-24. This is still far from the numbers of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo (in their ‘worst’ season in 2016-17 they shared 70 goals) but we should not forget the roles played by Joselu nor Brahim Diaz so far this season either — Joselu has 12 goals and four assists, Diaz has scored seven and assisted three times. Nor should we forget just how prolific Ronaldo was.

Now, Madrid’s goals are being shared around more, but nonetheless, the legacy of the ‘BBC’ means attention is immediately drawn to the prospect of three players combining in the manner Vinicius Jr, Bellingham and Rodrygo did once again on Saturday. They are also doing so at a younger age than their illustrious predecessors, who played together from 2013-14 to 2017-18, and that’s why the club think they still have room for growth.

So believes Ancelotti, who after Saturday’s match was asked by The Athletic to offer a nickname for the new trident. He laughed, before leaving his answer open.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I’m not that imaginative. I hope you guys come up with the right word.”

(Top photo: Antonio Villalba/Real Madrid via Getty Images)Images)

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