As the final whistle blew on the Uefa Nations League, Portugal lifted their second-ever international trophy.
Obviously all the headlines will belong to Gonçalo Guedes. Well, most of them will belong to Guedes, the winger who thrashed home the winning goal of the game with unerring power. The others will belong to Cristiano Ronaldo, because headlines always seem to revolve around him, and well, his semi-final heroics set the stage for Sunday’s 1-0 win over the Netherlands.
Hell, you could even spare some headlines for José Fonte; the man who came into the XI after Pepe’s injury and performed excellently. Or, Nelson Semedo whose supreme defensive showing should give him a lot of clout when he asks Barcelona for more football next season. Rui Patricio made big saves, William Carvalho screened well too.
There were lots of good performers for Portugal. But one stood out above everyone else, the man Uefa awarded as player of the tournament (handed his trophy unceremoniously before the main trophy was lifted) and man of the match for the final as well. The man who created the tournament-winning goal: Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva.
The Portuguese playmaker has had quite the season on the domestic front, stepping up to help Manchester City win the Premier League despite Kevin De Bruyne missing most of the season through injury.
It was a delightful return to form from Silva, who was essentially reduced to a back-up option during his first season with City. He was forced to watch as the Sky Blues picked up 100 points in the Premier League, but he eventually contributed hugely the following season. Bernardo is a resilient player, someone who is hard to keep down.
So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that he has played such a pivotal part for Portugal in the Nations League final-four. After all he missed out on winning Euro 2016 with Portugal because injury forced him out of their squad. He responded to that crushing blow by winning three league titles in three seasons with two different clubs. First Monaco and then Man City.
Then on to Portugal. Home soil, with his nation led to huge expectations for the national side. Ronaldo stole the headlines with his superb hat-trick against Switzerland, but who was it that set him up for the crucial 88th minute go-ahead goal? Bernardo Silva.
Now they were into the final against the Netherlands, to be played in Porto’s Dragao stadium. The last time Portugal played a major final at home they were embarrassed by Greece in 2004. This time would be different.
The Netherlands had most of the ball thanks to Frenkie de Jong but his team-mates, in particular his forwards, were nowhere near his level, so most Dutch possession broke apart when challenged by the rock-solid Portuguese defence. This left the hosts to play in short, sharp intervals. They weren’t going to have the ball for long but they could make it count when they did.
Subscribe to Squawka’s Youtube channel here.
And the thing is, they looked like they could score with every attack. They consistently created open looks for Bruno Fernandes to shoot from range, and it was as though they identified a weakness in Jasper Cillessen there. Of course Fernandes either blew wide or fired straight at Cillessen, but the plan was clear.
Silva’s movement was key to that plan. Cristiano is a forward who moves predictably for 99% of the game, but in that final 1% he can come alive if he’s lucky. He wasn’t lucky on Sunday, though, as Matthijs de Ligt and Virgil van Dijk easily kept him in check. But they could never get a handle on Silva.
The Man City man was constantly drifting into spaces both with and without the ball. More than once the Dutch had to throw multiple bodies at him in the most dramatic fashion in order to halt his progress. One got the impression that if the game had gone on much longer then Silva would have either won a penalty or scored himself.
The way Silva set up the winning goal was perhaps indicative of his genius. Seeing Guedes poke the ball through De Ligt’s legs, Silva took it and began advancing into the area. He wasn’t in a rush as he saw Van Dijk focus in on him. The Liverpool stopper didn’t rush to stop the Man City man, but he did only have eyes for him.
Perhaps Van Dijk was encouraging the shot, trying to goad Silva into a bad decision the same way he did to Moussa Sissoko in the Premier League. But Silva was two steps ahead, and used Van Dijk’s focus on him to slip a gorgeous reverse pass to Guedes. The Valencia winger was then in space at the top of the box with the two best Dutch defenders taken out of the game. They weren’t going to get involved in time.
Sure, Cillessen should have probably saved the shot Guedes took; but the crazy thing is the shot wasn’t even the right move. That would have been to continue the passing chain across to an unmarked Ronaldo inside the Dutch area.
You see because Silva had pulled Van Dijk’s focus, Daley Blind had to run across from left-back to stop Guedes from getting a shot off. Of course he failed at this and opened up the easy pass. Turns out Guedes didn’t need the pass and maybe we all need to re-evaluate how useful Blind is in a pinch because he cost Ajax their place in the Champions League final too.
Ultimately the entire structure of the winning goal revolves around Silva being so dangerous and smart that Van Dijk had to focus only on him, allowing the Man City playmaker to open up the rest of the pitch for his team-mates. He made his team-mates better (yet again) and made sure he made up for missing out on Euro 2016 by securing his first trophy with his country.
He wasn’t the flashiest performer, and he will likely never be heralded as a superstar or contender for the Ballon d’Or, but he was the supreme rhythm at the heart of Portugal’s titanic triumph in the Nations League. A true world-class wonder.