DOHA, Qatar — A year and a half in football is a long time, but especially for Bruno Fernandes and his career in Portugal.
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In June 2021, Manchester United’s midfielder was turned down by manager Fernando Santos in the UEFA Euro 16 round of 16 match against Belgium due to poor performance in the group stage. Portugal lost 1-0 and were relegated.
Fast forward to the World Cup and Santos is once again getting his team ready for the playoffs in a major tournament against Switzerland at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday. But this time, Fernandez’s participation is not discussed. He scored two goals and provided two assists in the group stage and rested before the final game against South Korea to spare himself from more difficult tests.
Santos is often blamed for failing to get Portugal to complement their impressive roles, but at least in Qatar, Fernandes is doing his bit. A team of talents like Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo SilvaJoao Felix, Ruben Diaz and Joao Cancelo enters the knockout phase like a mystery – nimble one minute, sloppy the next. They will need Fernandes to keep their form to have a chance to get out of the round of 16 at the World Cup for the first time since reaching the semi-finals in 2006.
Fernandes was heavily criticized during the Euros, with José Mourinho saying after a 4–2 loss to Germany in the group stage that Fernandes “was on the pitch but didn’t play”. There have been questions at United too – despite having scored 53 goals in 146 games since signing from Sporting in January 2020 on a deal worth up to €80m – with most of them centered on his tendency to give away ball.
Statistics showed that in the Champions League match against Istanbul Basaksehir in November 2020, he passed the ball 34 times, while United lost 2-1. A few weeks later, he passed the ball 17 times – more than any other player on the field – in the Premier League game against Wolves, but this time it was his pass that secured the victory in the 90th minute. Marcus Rashford.
Then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer subsequently admitted that Fernandes sometimes made him “tear his hair out”, but insisted that to get the most out of him, one had to combine the good with the bad.
“He’s definitely a player who makes a difference,” Solskjaer said. “He creates chances, scores goals and takes risks, which any Manchester United player should be allowed to do and be brave enough to do it. He is definitely a brave boy. He sees transmissions. You can’t take that away from Bruno.” “
United initially considered signing Fernandes in the summer of 2019 but decided that the price being asked by Sporting was too high for a player who conceded the ball often, even for an attacking player who was asked to take risks.
Solskjaer and current United boss Erik ten Hag have been working to improve his decision-making, but the 28-year-old has insisted that he won’t be completely changing his game in the summer.
“I hold the ball when I think I should, try passing when I think I should, and sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “Of course when something goes wrong I know it shouldn’t be a mistake, but sometimes when you play in position 10 you only have a few seconds to think, control the ball and make a pass, so it’s not that much. time to think.”
Usually at United, he was given a central role, and in the Portugal national team at the World Cup, he was used on the right flank of the top three, but with a license to drift inside. Like Solskjaer, Santos asks Fernandez to influence the results. When Portugal wobbled 1-1 against Ghana in their first leg, it was Fernandes who scored two goals in two minutes, first with a delightful cross to Felix and then another to Rafael Leão. In the match against Uruguay, he scored the first magnificent cross into the box, which Ronaldo could not connect, and then converted the penalty, winning it himself with a dart into the box.
Only England and Spain have scored more than six of Portugal’s group stage goals, and Fernandes has been directly involved in four of them. Ronaldo, even at 37, remains Portugal’s figurehead, but if they’re going to be true rivals in Qatar, it’s up to players like Fernandes to quietly mind their own business.
This World Cup is seen as the end of an era in Portugal with Ronaldo playing in his fifth and final tournament and Santos’ tenure as manager is likely to end in eight years. No one knows what to expect from Switzerland in the second round on Tuesday and possibly Spain in the quarter-finals. So far the only constant has been the form of Fernandes. If Ronaldo and Santos are going to take it to the next level, they will need it to continue.