Rodrygo is Real Madrid's hottest star ready to shine in El Clasico v Barcelona

They got there just in time. In the last second of the last minute of stoppage time, Thibaut Courtois popped up in the opposition box. His header was palmed away by Valencia ‘keeper Jaumen Doménech. But as the ball bounced around the six-yard box, Karim Benzema, the sharpest of the 22 players crammed into that little space, pounced to side foot it into the roof of the net.

Cue wild celebrations from the Real Madrid players. It was Sunday night in the Mestalla, three days before El Clasico, and they all knew how important that point was. They will now go into the game level with Barcelona in La Liga – the first time the two teams have met under such circumstances for almost a decade.

The moment was sweet for Madridistas, players and fans alike. For fresh-faced Brazilian teenager Rodrygo, it had a little extra significance. The leveller meant that he maintained a very favourable personal record: he has now started eight times for Real and he is yet to finish on the losing side.

On Wednesday at the Camp Nou, he will hope to be handed the chance to extend that run even further.

In a game of such magnitude, there is of course no guarantee that manager Zinedine Zidane will include the 18-year-old in his line-up. Against Valencia, Rodrygo did not put in his finest performance and was replaced by his compatriot Vinicius Jr. after 70 minutes.

But Gareth Bale is yet to start for Real since the incident with what the media in Spain refer to as the ‘priorities flag’, whilst Eden Hazard is still recovering from the ankle injury he suffered against Paris Saint-Germain.

And in his other displays this season, Rodrygo has done more than enough to justify the opinion of those who believe he should be given the nod at the Camp Nou. As well as those eight starts, he has made four sub appearances this term and already has six goals and two assists.

It is a staggering return for a player so young and is even more impressive when you consider that he only arrived in the Spanish capital in July.

Most imagined that this season would be a warm-up act, a little taster of the main event that should, if talent is any indicator of future success, be a stellar career.

There were questions over his physique and how he would handle the substantial step up from Brazil’s Serie A to the top of La Liga.

But in his very first game in the white shirt of the 13-time European Champions, he took just 93 seconds to find the net in stunning fashion. It was the fastest debut goal for a Real player since another Brazilian, Ronaldo Fenomeno, scored 61 seconds into his Merengues career in 2002.

A second league goal followed a month later in a 5-0 thrashing of Leganes, before he truly announced himself to the world in early November with a performance for the record books.

After four minutes of his home Champions League debut against Galatasaray, he became the youngest Brazilian goal scorer in the Champions League. After six minutes, he was the owner of the quickest brace for Real Madrid in a Champions League game. After 45, his first Real assist. In the 92nd, the youngest ever player to score a perfect hat-trick – right foot, left foot and header – in European competition.

“Things are happening a little faster than I’d imagined,” he said in his post-match interview. Just a little.

Yet in some ways, the speed of Rodrygo’s ascent is unsurprising. He has never been one to wait.
To the boy who beat Neymar to become the youngest footballer to sign a sponsorship contract with Nike, aged just 11, who made his top-flight debut at 16 and is the youngest ever Santos player to score in the Copa Libertadores, younger than Neymar, Robinho or Pele, time is clearly of the essence.

And that Zidane appears to have felt some immediate connection with Rodrygo, a sense of trust usually reserved for older players, also seems right. Despite the differences in physique and position, Zidane perhaps sees a little of himself in the Brazil international.

Rodrygo’s acceleration is impressive, but his real strength does not lie in any of his physical attributes. Instead, it is the 18-year-old’s technique, clarity of vision, decision making and understanding of the shape and flow of games that set him apart from his contemporaries.

After that debut strike against Osasuna, Zidane did not focus on Rodrygo’s finish, but on his first touch, saying that it was “worth half a goal.”

After the Galatasary game, the Real manager commented that, if he had to choose the one thing he most admired about Rodrygo, “it would be that he’s a very intelligent player who learns a lot quickly.”

The Clasico, as well as an enormous challenge, is a magnificent opportunity. On both sides of the divide, it is the stage on which careers are consecrated. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Copa del Rey winning goal in 2011, the Messi hat-trick in 2007, Ronaldinho’s standing ovation at the Bernabeu in 2005.

Rodrygo, of course, is still a very, very long way from that sort of level. He is 18 and if the occasion proves too much for him this time, no fingers should be pointed. But as he has already shown, he is not the reticent type.

With Real hungry to take the lead in La Liga and their young Brazilian in sparkling form, Barcelona should be wary.

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