A young Portuguese star was thrust into the limelight at the Euros this summer, helping his country make history before being named as the young player of the tournament. That player was Renato Sanches – but he might not have gone at all but for a late twist of fate.
Monaco’s Bernardo Silva looked like the man most likely to take the final midfield spot in the Portugal squad that went on to win the the Euros, only for the 22-year-old to suffer a thigh injury in the penultimate match of the Ligue 1 season. Silva was out, Sanches was in.
At Wembley against Spurs, Silva looked like a man determined to make up for lost time. His poise, intelligence on the ball, slight 5ft 8in frame and wand of a left foot were reminiscent of another Silva, the man who has dazzled for years at Manchester City.
Tottenham’s fatal mistake was to play into the Monaco man’s hands. “The fact that it was a larger pitch may have affected them,” boss Leonardo Jardim asserted afterwards. “They like to play a pressing game but on a bigger pitch it’s harder to close everyone down.”
Never was that better illustrated than in the 15th minute, when Silva got the ball in the right channel, and Tottenham failed to close him down. They were punished: the Portuguese was allowed to cut back onto his stronger left foot by Jan Vertonghen, before rifling a brilliant effort into the far corner. The momentum of the game had shifted irreversibly.
Silva was the key to Monaco’s counter-attacking strategy. He didn’t have a lot of the ball but he seldom wasted it, carrying it upfield, linking well with Joao Moutinho and Radamel Falcao. Almost always he picked the right pass, most of them short, but this was not a night for Hollywood balls. Despite Spurs' dominance of possession, he actually completed more passes in the attacking third than any other player.
“He had a very good game,” Jardim added via not one but two translators, first Portuguese to French, then French to English, in some sort of bizarre Champions League version of Chinese whispers. “He fitted in perfectly to our tactical plans, he created problems offensively for the Spurs defence throughout and he showed what an agile, nimble player he is. He was very important on the transitions, he helped us to keep the ball when he had it.”
Man United links make sense
Silva, like his Monaco team-mate Fabinho, has been linked to Manchester United in recent months, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Firstly, he’s with the Gestifute agency operated by Jorge Mendes, who also represents Jose Mourinho and a number of players Mourinho has signed in the past. Secondly, he may just be the sort of player United could find a use for in six or 12 months’ time.
Silva can play anywhere in the three positions behind the main striker – he rotated often between those positions against Spurs. Admittedly Mourinho doesn't seem short of options in those positions, but nor does he seem to have definite answers there either at this stage.
Wayne Rooney would be expected to hold down the central spot for some time to come, but out wide Henrikh Mkhitaryan is yet to really get going, while Jesse Lingard was surprisingly given the nod for the Manchester derby at the weekend.
Juan Mata started the three league games before that but it would be no surprise if eventually he falls by the wayside under Mourinho, just as he did at Chelsea. Silva could potentially be a younger, more dynamic version of Mata, able to create opportunities with his left foot but also score them too.
His strike against Spurs was his first in the Champions League proper, but he’s netted three times in seven games this season – including in the qualifying round win over Villarreal – and his tally of 20 goals in 97 games for Monaco is certainly respectable.
Like Sanches, Silva is a product of the Benfica youth system – even if he played for the first team only three times before compatriot Jardim snapped him up at Monaco, first on loan and then on a €15.75m permanent deal 18 months ago, on a contract until 2019.
Born Bernardo Mota Veiga de Carvalho e Silva, his name reads like a list of random 21st century footballers, albeit some misspelt – almost like something out of that sketch in Father Ted when Dougal was asked to administer the last rites, before realising he didn’t actually know any Latin. “Er... totus tuus minimus canus, Costacurta, Baggio, Roberto…”
Silva got the better of Harry Kane last summer, too, when Portugal beat England 1-0 at the European Under 21 Championship on the way to the final. His full international debut came in inauspicious circumstances – an embarrassing 2-0 home loss to Cape Verde in March 2015 – but he was back in the squad after injury this month, netting his first goal for his country in a friendly win over Gibraltar.
Silva has helped Monaco to the top of Ligue 1 in the early stages of the new campaign – and they’ve already beaten PSG this term. Last time they won in London, at Arsenal two seasons ago, the star of the show Yannick Carrasco was quickly snapped up by Atletico Madrid.
Juventus are already reported to have offered €22m for Silva, while Chelsea and Manchester City have also been tentatively linked. Should his form continue, sooner or later the Monegasque club may receive a bid that’s too difficult to turn down.
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