Vinicius Jr

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Vinicius Jr takes veiled shot at Messi ahead of Clasico

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Real Madrid winger Vinicius Jr might be 18 years old, but ahead of the two El Clasicos in the next four days, he’s puffing his chest like a seasoned veteran.

With the two teams set to meet in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals on Wednesday with the score level at 1-1 so far, the Brazilian teen has earned a place in the starting lineup of late, and in turn has begun to throw himself full-tilt into the Clasico rivalry. “Messi is always there,” Vinicius Jr said to Brazilian publication Esporte Interativo on Monday. “He’s an incredible player but we aren’t scared of anybody. We’re ready and have the best players in the world.”

The quotes were edgy enough that the teen was forced to issue a clarification a day later after some outlets passing along the quote mistranslated it to him claiming that Messi “doesn’t scare anyone.”

Either way, Vinicius claiming that Real Madrid has “the best players in the world” is in its own way a more well-veiled shot at the player many believe is the best in the game today and maybe the greatest ever.

The two teams are set to take the field twice in a short span. After meeting in cup play midweek, the two will match up on Saturday in La Liga play in a huge game. Barcelona is seven points ahead in the league table, with Atletico Madrid back in second and Real Madrid a single point behind them in third. A Real Madrid win on Saturday would throw the title race on its head, cutting the lead to five and handing Atletico the chance to slice that to four.

Vinicius Jr has been a fan favorite over the last few months, earning a spot in Santiago Solari’s regular lineup over other more established players like Gareth Bale and Isco. He earned his first minutes in the rivalry with Barcelona in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals, having missed out on a spot in the squad during their first league meeting back in late October.

La Liga: Real Madrid pulls within two of 2nd place Atletico

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While Barcelona sits atop the La Liga table with a comfortable six point cushion, the race below them continues to rage on. On Sunday, the waters were muddied a bit thanks to a 3-0 Real Betis win at Atletico Madrid, allowing their cross-town rivals to gain ground.

Real Madrid topped Alaves 1-0 at home, pulling them to within two points of Atletico in second place. All the way back in ninth in early November, Madrid has hit its stride and rocketed back up the table with a stretch of eight wins in their past 11 league matches.

Karim Benzema was the opening goalscorer on Sunday, as his 30th minute tap-in capped off a simple overlap between Sergio Reguilon and Alvaro Odriozola that somehow picked apart the Alaves right flank. Reguilon crossed it for Benzema streaking in at the back post and he poked in his ninth league goal of the season and third in the last two games.

The 31-year-old Frenchman has come under fire this season for his goal scoring form without Cristiano Ronaldo to draw defenders, but has responded with a stretch of five goals in his last seven games. Other popular Madrid players have received criticism as well, and while Gareth Bale has maintained his starting place, others like Marcelo and Isco have dropped to the bench. Young players like Regulion, Odriozola, and Vinicius Jr have come in and taken their spots in the lineup with improved play, helping Madrid right the ship.

18-year-old Vinicius Jr finished things off 10 minutes from time on the break as a cross from Marco Asensio passed Benzema but fell to Vinicius at the far post for a powerful low finish. Substitute Mariano added the icing on the cake with a 91st minute with a diving header, redirecting Odriozola’s cross into the top-right corner.

Meanwhile, Atletico was held by Betis in Alvaro Morata’s debut for the club, but they could only put one of their 13 shots on frame, and the wasteful afternoon was punished by Sergio Canales from the penalty spot just past the hour mark. Morata had the team’s only shot on target, coming in the 11th minute. From that point on, the visitors were wasteful, and when Filipe Luis handled the ball in the area, that allowed Canales to step up and bury his sixth goal of the season, and third in the last four games.

With Barcelona at the top on 50 points, the Atletico loss leaves them six points back in second on 44. Real Madrid’s win, meanwhile, moved them to within two of their rivals, on 42 points in third place.

Elsewhere, Espanyol came back from 2-0 down on the road at Villareal to secure a 2-2 draw. A Daniele Bonera own-goal in the 75th minute opened the door, and Roberto Rosales scored six minutes later to secure the draw. The result is a tragic one for Villareal, who is battling relegation and has not won since November 25, unable to turn five draws in that span into anything more meaningful. The point Sunday saw them up to 19 on the season, but it didn’t help them gain much ground on 18th placed Rayo Vallecano or 17th placed Leganes both on 23 points.

And finally, Eibar pummeled Girona 3-0 behind a brace from 34-year-old Brazilian striker Charles who has six goals in his last six league games.

Top talents to watch at the U-17 World Cup

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Earlier, we told you about the attack-heavy, excitement-bringing United States roster for the U-17 World Cup.

Now what about the rest?

[ WATCH LIVE: U-17 World Cup on Telemundo Deportes ]

Before we begin, how about some shouts for the players who could hit the pitch in India before turning 16, not counting the seven (including four 14-year-olds!!) on Guinea:

  • Carlos Guerrero (15, Mexico)
  • Kiam Wanesse (15, New Caledonia)
  • Seiya Baba and Zion Suzuki (15, Japan)
  • Mahamadou Mahamane and Djibrilla Ibrahim (15, Niger)
  • Alkalifa Coulibay and Mamadou Traore (15, Mali)
  • Ibrahim Danlad (14, Ghana) and Kwame Aziz (15, Ghana)

Disclaimed: Timothy Weah and Josh Sargent from the U.S. are legitimately amongst this group, but we’ve included them in our U.S. players to watch post.

Jann-Fiete Arp, forward, Germany (Hamburger SV)

The 17-year-old striker has already made his Bundesliga debut, coming in for American center forward Bobby Wood in an early season match versus Werder Bremen.

Vinicius Jr, forward, Brazil (Real Madrid*)

Vinicius won’t head to Real until his 18th birthday, with the forward carrying the distinction of being the most expensive Brazilian since Neymar while spending this season with Flamengo.

Abel Ruiz, forward, Spain (Barcelona)

The forward has already posted a goal for Barcelona B, and boasts 19 goals in 23 appearances at the U-17 level.

Diego Lainez, midfielder, Mexico (Club America)

Lainez is one of the brightest prospects for El Tri, already possessing 10 first team appearances for one the nation’s legendary clubs. It’s not crazy to consider the left-sided man Mexico’s answer to Christian Pulisic.

Takefusa Kubo, forward, Japan (FC Tokyo)

Kubo spent five years at Barcelona before returning home to Tokyo, where he’s featuring with the club’s U-23s.

Angel Gomes, midfielder, England (Manchester United)

The Red Devils’ Academy product made his Premier League bow when he subbed on for Wayne Rooney in last season’s finale. Turned out to be a big moment for Rooney, too.

Willem Guebbels, forward, France (Lyon)

Guebbels turned 16 in August, and debuted for Lyon one month later.

Jadon Sancho, midfielder, England (Borussia Dortmund)

The long-time Manchester City man moved to Germany this summer, and is already threatening to get playing time in the Bundesliga.

Juan Miranda, defender, Spain (Barcelona)

Already with 14 appearances for Spain’s U-17, he’s also debuted for Barcelona B