The Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo era, where both players were at the top of their game for the two biggest clubs in the world, will never be replicated. But tonight, as Real Madrid beat Barcelona 3-2 in the semi-final of the Spanish Super Cup, we got a slight glimpse of the potential future.
Vinicius Jr has emerged as Real Madrid’s latest superstar, and succeeded where Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard have both failed since the departure of Ronaldo. The 21-year-old has flourished this season and as Madrid’s big money signings haven’t paid off, it is now Vinicius that has taken top billing at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Meanwhile, at the Camp Nou, Ousmane Dembele may not have hit the same heights as his Brazilian counterpart, but tonight in Riyadh, he looked like the outrageously talented player that Barca bought from Borussia Dortmund back in 2017. His performance tonight outlines why his contract situation, which expires this summer, is causing such interest across the continent.
Both players have the talent to decide a match, and tonight, they were their team’s leading lights. It was the little Brazilian himself who broke the deadlock after Karim Benzema first won the ball off the Barcelona midfield and then threaded it through to the number 20 who feathered the ball into the top corner with his left foot, for his 15th goal of the season.
But Barca, and Dembele, bounced back. It wasn’t the style of play we are used to but that man Dembele put in a wonderful cross to Luuk De Jong, but he put his header straight at Thibaut Courtois when he should have scored. Moments later, De Jong saw another, more difficult header stopped, this time after Jordi Alba delivered.
However, Barcelona’s persistence paid off - albeit fortunately. Dembele, who Dani Carvajal struggled with all night, fired the ball across goal and although Eder Militao attempted to clear, the ball struck Luuk de Jong and went into the net. It was one apiece at the break, as the Saudi Arabian audience took stock of what they had seen from two of the finest youngsters on the planet.
It’s worth noting the strange backdrop this match was played in front of. The players came out to a strange atmosphere, despite the healthy attendance in Riyadh. All the talk of a 39th Premier League game abroad, all those years ago, may eventually come into fruition given the money that these countries have and if so, it would look something like this. The teams were the same, the kits were the same and there was a decent noise when Real Madrid in particular ventured forward, yet something didn’t seem right.
However, the second half resumed and Dembele fired over as Barca took the initiative in the second half and saw his long shot headed over by De Jong as the pair linked up yet again. Benzema, who has been so good for Madrid over the past few years linked up with Vinicius before he twisted and turned and fired his left-footed shot against the post.
However, just seconds later the Frenchman would not be denied. His first effort was brilliantly saved by Ter Stegen but Carvajal fed the ball back into him and Benzema was there to get his 23rd of the season, and put the league leaders in front.
Ferran Torres’ Barcelona debut was solid if unspectacular but it was another youngster, off the bench who got the equaliser. Ansu Fati, just 19, got his head to a lovely cross. Along with Gavi, Pedri and Ferran Torres, there is some serious young talent in this side, and Xavi seems to be moulding them into a competitive outfit once more.
That goal forced extra-time and Real Madrid broke on their fierce rivals. It was Rodrygo who charged down the right-hand side and cut the ball back to Vinicius, who cleverly dummied the ball for Fede Valverde to finish from close range.
And Carlo Ancelotti’s side held on to book their place in the final after a testing night against their fiercest rivals. Los Blancos have Vinicius and Barcelona will hope to keep Dembele as part of their special group of youngsters looking to rebuild the club under Xavi, but it is Real Madrid who progress to the final.