Twelve months ago, Dani Alves was in training with Sao Paulo in between a disappointing draw with Athletico Paranaense and 1-0 home defeat in the San-Sao derby to Santos.
At the same time, Vinicius Jr was in the midst of a Real Madrid goal drought that began in late October and didn’t end until March 1.
Now, they are preparing to face each other in the Supercopa de Espana semi-final, with Alves astonishingly back at Barca and – perhaps even more surprising – Vinicius probably one of the two best players in LaLiga.
It’s fair to say that, at this point last year, there were growing concerns Vinicius simply wasn’t going to be the player many had hoped or predicted.
While he was still only 20, he didn’t seem to have developed a great deal since joining from Flamengo in 2018. If anything, he looked as though he was in reverse, and rumours were beginning to swirl regarding his future.
It was a little like when Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu in Star Wars doubts the prophecy that Anakin Skywalker is ‘the One’ to destroy the Sith.
Yet, Vinicius (SPOILER ALERT) succeeded where Anakin failed, the Brazilian managing to get himself back on the right path. In terms of decisiveness, he looks unrecognisable now, so ruthless that you’d suggest he was more machine than man – just without the helmet and Darth Vader’s asthmatic problems.
First and foremost, Vinicius’ haul of 12 goals is already three times his previous best in a single LaLiga season, and he’s still got almost half a campaign left.
Undoubtedly Carlo Ancelotti’s trust will be playing a part. Zinedine Zidane never quite gave the impression he had absolute faith in Vinicius, but the Italian has been unwavering in that regard practically ever since he got the job for a second time.
But Vinicius deserves the most credit.
He’s showing much more maturity in his game. He’s gone from being the most frustrating player on the pitch to very often being the most decisive.
His expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes is up to 0.49 from 0.3, which suggests he’s generally getting into better positions than before – but perhaps even more importantly, though connected to that, is the fact he’s averaging 0.67 goals over the same period.
Last season that figure was just 0.14, roughly half his xG, evidence that his decision-making and composure were at a pretty low level.
Vinicius is creating chances more frequently as well (1.9 per 90 mins, up from 1.5), but his biggest improvement is definitely in his decisions in front of goal.
Of course, outperforming xG can be a sign of good fortune, so some might suggest his form isn’t sustainable – we won’t know whether that’s the case for a while yet.
But even when you disregard that, the improvement he’s shown is massive. He’s gone from wasting chances he shouldn’t, to scoring chances he shouldn’t.
His first goal in the recent 4-1 win over Valencia was an interesting exhibition of his new-found striker’s instinct. Not only did he continue his run after offloading to Karim Benzema, he then made his own luck when bundling the ball through a crowd before nonchalantly passing into the bottom corner.
While maybe not an astounding goal in isolation, it’s difficult to imagine that passage going the same way last season. Confidence breeds confidence, and he looks almost unstoppable.
With that in mind, the man he’ll come up against on Wednesday will presumably be getting himself pumped up for a real challenge.
Of course, Alves has been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore the hat. If we go back to the bad Star Wars analogies, Alves is Obi-Wan Kenobi. You thought he was gone for good but returns when you need him most.
This will of course be his first Clasico since returning to the club in November, answering Barca’s call when all they could afford were free signings.
As much as anything, Wednesday’s game should provide Xavi with understanding as to what the 38-year-old’s ceiling is.
It’s unlikely he’ll be fazed about the prospect of tussling with Vinicius, though he’ll be aware of the standard his compatriot is now playing at.
If Vinicius can be kept quiet, Barca’s chances of success will increase exponentially, and it’s by no means outlandish to suggest this game could be a turning point in their season, as Xavi noted in his pre-match news conference.
With a recent bank loan allowing them to sign Ferran Torres and president Joan Laporta declaring Barca are “back”, all of a sudden the outlook isn’t so gloomy, particularly now they’re through the worst (they hope) of an injury and coronavirus outbreak crisis.
Xavi’s brought through several talented young players already, and then there were injured ‘wonderkids’ Ansu Fati and Pedri waiting in the wings. They look set for important roles over the rest of the season and beyond – you might even suggest there’s plenty of cause for optimism at Camp Nou.
The Supercopa offers a chance to really consolidate the growing positivity, and success in the Clasico might indicate Barca are genuinely back.