Vinicius Junior gives Real Madrid fans hope amid struggles

              Real Madrid's Vinicius Jr, right, duels for the ball with Leganes' Unai Bustinza during a Spanish Copa del Rey soccer match between Real Madrid and Leganes at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

MADRID (AP) — The Santiago Bernabeu Stadium crowd becomes animated every time Vinicius Junior gets the ball.

Anticipation builds and the crowd murmurings rise as the young Brazilian sets himself and studies the opposition.

Will there be a step-over dribble?

A quick drive past a defender?

A deceptive run filled with changes of pace?

In an up and down season for Real Madrid, Vinicius Junior has been the one steady factor, the one constant fans have been able to rely on to prompt a smile or cheer or sometimes awe.

The 18-year-old forward has given the fans hope of better times ahead as the team struggles to find consistency and regain confidence.

“Vinicius is bold, he takes people on,” Real Madrid coach Santiago Solari says.

“He is making huge strides. He’s always had the talent, but to develop it at the Bernabeu, surrounded by wonderful players, speaks volumes about his confidence, rawness, and the happiness he shows with the ball at his feet.”

Solari spoke after beating Leganes 3-0 in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, when Vinicius Junior scored the third goal with a neat volley from inside the area in the second half.

“His goal showed wonderful technique,” Solari says. “We are very happy with his performances. He has that individual ability to beat a defender. We hope he continues to improve.”

Vinicius Junior’s progress could be key for Madrid as it tries to get back on track and finish the season well.

The Brazilian forward has earned a starting spot just as Madrid enters a difficult period of matches beginning on Sunday with a trip to Real Betis.

It faces consecutive games against teams in the top half of the Spanish league, plus knockout matches in the Champions League and Copa del Rey. Madrid trails league leader Barcelona by 10 points and needs to start rebounding soon if it wants to keep its title hopes alive.

Vinicius Junior arrived amid high expectations in the offseason after Madrid paid nearly 45 million euros ($51 million) to sign him from Brazilian club Flamengo. He had been in Madrid’s B team until Solari took over from the fired Julen Lopetegui and gave the youngster more chances with the first team.

Injuries to Gareth Bale and Mariano Diaz have helped keep Vinicius Junior in the spotlight, although the recent arrival of young Manchester City winger Brahim Diaz could pose a threat to the Brazilian. Vinicius Junior’s fate when the entire squad is available remains to be seen, but the teen has impressed in the chances he has been given, and been embraced by the crowd.

There is a lot more to come, naturally. Vinicius Junior still hasn’t fully adapted to European soccer. He often struggles tactically, and at times looks too anxious to get things done on the field, leading to poor choices. He has also missed some clear scoring chances.

But to fans and teammates, his evolving skills outweigh his shortcomings.

“I said it a long time ago, if Vinicius continues to work hard and surrounds himself with people who support him and give him the confidence to carry the weight of a club like Real Madrid, he has a bright future,” defender Nacho Fernandez says.

“His teammates will fight with him until the end and he’s showing that he’s a great player.”