In the 89th minute, with the white half of Seville’s La Cartuja stadium close to a new trophy, Carlo Ancelotti decided to take off Rodrygo, the king of Saturday’s Copa del Rey final.
Real Madrid’s Italian manager has played a key role in his Brazilian striker’s recent progress and, as they acknowledged each other on the side of the pitch, you could once again see signs of the respect and affection they share.
It was a moment that stood in stark contrast to what happened in the round of 16 in January. Looking back now, it helps show just how far Rodrygo has come and how quickly.
Losing 2-0 away to Villarreal, Ancelotti had replaced Rodrygo then, too, but in the 56th minute. Without the Brazilian on the pitch, Madrid made a heroic comeback to qualify for the quarter-finals. However, the Brazilian’s reaction provided a sour note.
Having ignored Ancelotti as he walked off the field of play, the Italian told him: “You greet me when you come off!”
Rodrygo recognised his mistake — one driven by frustration. He felt his hard work in training and influence in matches should make his starting place undisputed in the team.
Three and a half months later, a glance at his numbers shows he is now Madrid’s sixth-most-used player in terms of minutes on the pitch. He has scored 16 times, providing 11 assists. Of these 27 goal involvements, 21 have come in 36 games as a starter and six in the 15 appearances he has made from the bench.
When Real Madrid played their own reserve team in the Copa del Rey final
Saturday’s Copa del Rey title is Madrid’s 20th in total and only their third success in the competition since 1993. It is one that should carry Rodrygo’s name: he scored his team’s first (against third-tier Cacereno in January) and last goals in the tournament.
Against Osasuna, his opening strike came right at the start, created by his friend Vinicius Junior. With it, he became Madrid’s youngest scorer (at 22 years and 117 days) in a Copa del Rey final in the 21st century.
After the Pamplona-based side equalised, Rodrygo was there for his team again, finishing smartly from a rebound after Toni Kroos’ shot. That goal was even more special than the first, not just for what it meant, but for what was behind the celebration.
While the fans were once again chanting his name, Rodrygo was thinking of a young boy he had recently met, Ignacio, through Juegaterapia (Play Therapy), a Madrid-based charity that helps support the treatment of children with cancer.
Last Thursday, Rodrygo was with Ignacio and together they played Fifa on the Playstation. Ten other children with cancer shared the moment, but with Ignacio, there was an anecdote: he scored a goal and celebrated it with a gesture. The Brazilian celebrated his second in Seville in the same way.
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It was a perfect Saturday night for the striker, supported from the stands by his parents and little sister, the three pillars of his life. They were also watching on September 25, 2019, when Rodrygo scored his first goal for Real Madrid just 93 seconds after coming on the pitch, again against Osasuna.
“Yes, I’m in my best moment. It’s very special, this player of the match award,” Rodrygo said after the 2-1 victory. “I feel very proud. Every day I fulfil what was my biggest dream, that the fans chant my name.
“Now I’ve won all the titles with this shirt. The coach has a lot of confidence in me and I am scoring more and more.”
20x Copa del Rey! 🏆
Real Madrid lift their second trophy of the season! 🙌
All eyes on the #UCL now… 👀 pic.twitter.com/yWt2EhRd39
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 6, 2023
Speaking moments before, in the press room, Ancelotti only had words of praise.
“I don’t know where his ceiling is,” the Italian said. “He is elegant, moves well and scores goals. He’s making spectacular progress. The second half didn’t start well for us, we suffered, but Rodrygo changed the dynamic.”
Ancelotti was another of the night’s big winners. He keeps repeating that he has a contract until 2024 but is nonetheless mindful of the unwritten rule that states a Real Madrid coach needs a major title to stay on — even if he does not yet for sure know whether this Copa del Rey will be enough.
For the moment, he has at least lived up to his claim of April 11, when he said: “If we are lucky enough to win the Copa, we will have won all the titles in two seasons, something that others don’t achieve in a lifetime.”
But his position does seem much clearer after Florentino Perez’s words last night. “He has a contract for this season and one more, and we are delighted with him,” Madrid’s president told Movistar.
Seville last night was a place to smile for those in white. Vinicius Jr, again surrounded by controversy and decisive in both goals, remains unstoppable. Luka Modric showed he has recovered from injury following his express trip to Belgrade for treatment and will aim to start on Tuesday. Karim Benzema equalled Marcelo as the player with the most titles in Madrid’s history. Kroos lifted the only trophy he was missing.
There are few better ways to prepare for another huge match, this one at the Santiago Bernabeu against Manchester City. Because at Real Madrid, winning the Copa del Rey brings happiness, but the Champions League is another dimension.
(Top photo: Alvaro Medranda/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)
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