Take that, you racists. A day that had dawned with the grim sight of an effigy of Vinícius Júnior hanging from a bridge ended with him going wild, celebrating the third goal of a dramatic night in which Real Madrid came from behind to defeat Atlético 3-1 and head into the semi-final of the Copa del Rey, leaving their city rivals with nothing left to chase this season. There was vindication in the reaction, the Brazilian shouting, clenching his fists, pumping his arms and eventually dancing, which is what he does, a message in the way he moves, and why not? The question now is what consequences there will be.
The buildup to a wonderful game, an old-style derby to delight, had, after all, been overshadowed by another episode to depress. Overnight, some Atlético fans had placed a banner from a bridge near Real’s training ground, declaring “Madrid hates Real”. Beneath it, an inflatable doll wearing a Vinícius shirt, rope around its neck. This was not the first time he had been subjected to racist abuse: when these teams met in September, a group of Atlético supporters chanted that he was a monkey. That time, he and his teammates had danced in celebration of a 2-1 win – a point made if not heeded, depressingly.
Atlético have a small, hardcore far-right fan group and as the two teams prepared to meet again, the effigy appeared. Both clubs released statements condemning the act while the league’s president, Javier Tebas, vowed to find those responsible. Vinícius’s camp told Reuters they were aware of it but he would not allow it to get in the way what lay ahead, however unavoidable that he felt: he had a match to play first. One to win, too.
They won it the way Madrid tend to. As Carlo Ancelotti warned, as if Atlético even needed telling: “Real Madrid always come back.” And so it was another telling of the never-ending story for Atlético, who led through an Álvaro Morata goal but, reduced to 10 men, lost once again. Diego Simeone had insisted that these games should not go to extra time but an astonishing late Rodrygo goal took them there and if that felt like some inescapable fate, what followed was even more inevitable. A Karim Benzema strike in the 105th minute effectively put them through before Vinícius had his moment of him.
Real’s victory hadn’t always seemed likely, except that is when it seems to be most likely. Atlético took control early and took the lead early too, Morata finishing off a move that had taken them virtually the length of the pitch until a neat clipped pass from Koke released Nahuel Molina behind the Real defense on the right. First time, on the volley, he sent the ball across the six-yard box to the far post where the Spanish striker couldn’t miss.
It wasn’t too long before another clever clipped pass, this time from Rodrigo De Paul, found Thomas Lemar in a similar position to the one Molina had occupied. This time it ran across the face of goal, just beyond the reach of Morata, and past the far post, but it was a faithful reflection of the football being played, Antoine Griezmann at the heart of it. The good news for Real was that it was only one goal and if anyone knows there is always a way back it is them. They had shown as much recovering from 2-0 down to beat Villarreal 3-2 and reach this quarter-final.
Atlético know that quality only too well of course. They realized a reaction was bound to come and so it did, Reinildo Mandava and Mario Hermoso having to intervene to deny Vinícius and Luka Modric as the game become faster and more open. Above all, it belonged more to Real, now finding room into which to run, a Nacho shot flashing past three men in the area: Fede Valverde, Vinícius and Benzema were all unable to turn it goalwards. Next an extraordinary pass from Valverde from wide on the right somehow went right through Benzema’s legs.
Griezmann now seemed a long way away, harder for his teammates to find, until suddenly he was dashing away with 20 minutes to go. The move eventually ended with a foul on the edge of the area. Griezmann smashed in the free-kick, hard and high, but Thibaut Courtois’ hands were strong, palms pushing away. From the corner, an overhead kick from Axel Witsel flew wide. If Real’s momentum had slowed, their momentum came – and it was absurd.
The substitiute Rodrygo, who had rescued them in the Champions League last season, didn’t really have anything on when he received the ball 30 yards out. Hips swaying, pace changing, he dropped a shoulder, glided past Witsel’s lunge, went beyond Hermoso, ball flitting from one foot to the other, beat Savic and then, with the outside of his boot, curled it in at the near post.
This was on edge now, and it almost fell Atlético’s way when Griezmann found Memphis Depay, on as a sub, and he drew a sharp low save from Courtois. But these two teams were heading into familiar territory: their last six one-off games have all gone to extra time, the one thing Simeone had wanted to avoid. Perhaps he knew, because Savic was sent off and there was Benzema. And, at the very end, Vinícius too.