As Portugal head into their crucial World Cup play-off against Turkey, there is a lot of debate about the composition of A Seleção‘s attack.
Cristiano Ronaldo is still the main man of course, but there are plenty of star names making up the supporting cast: Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota, Bernardo Silva, João Félix and André Silva, none of whom need any introduction.
But what if the answer to the Portuguese predicament takes the form of Valencia’s Gonçalo Guedes? If Fernando Santos is reading this, it could hold the key to qualifying for Qatar.
The career trajectory of Guedes is not a straightforward one. From an early age he was clearly a bright prospect, playing for all of Portugal’s youth teams from under-15s upwards. A product of the famously fruitful Benfica academy, Formação, Guedes came through as part of a squad including Ederson, Renato Sanches and Victor Lindelöf. In his first full season, he scored the winner at the Estadio Vicente Calderón in a Champions League game against Atleti, catching the eye of Diego Simeone, who clearly has a penchant for young prodigious Portuguese forwards.
This impressive form earned him a €30 million move to Paris Saint-Germain, but he was unable to cement a regular spot in the team. Just six months later, he was loaned to Valencia, and 2017/18 was his coming-of-age campaign. He hit a hot streak in the autumn, scoring his first international goal before netting for Valencia against Real Betis and following that up with a brace against Sevilla at Mestalla. His debut season in La Liga yielded a total of five goals and nine assists for the 21-year-old; form which earned him a spot in Portugal’s World Cup squad. It also persuaded Valencia to make his loan move permanent, with Los Che sending €40 million to Paris, still a club record fee.
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The following season was not as prolific for him, largely because of separate injury issues, but he continued to contribute for Marcelino’s side. An abductor tear and groin injury meant he missed 15 matches in total in 2018/19. But he really came into form at the business end of the season. Firstly, he scored a crucial 93rd-minute equaliser in Russia against Krasnodar to keep their European dreams alive in their centenary season.
Without that goal, Krasnodar would have progressed on away goals. Then he scored the opener against Real Madrid in a 2-1 win at a vociferous Mestalla, before scoring two away at Villarreal in the Europa League quarter-final in a breathtaking counter-attacking performance. He also played the full 90 minutes in the Copa del Rey final as Valencia beat Barcelona on a momentous night for the club, to secure their first trophy in 11 years.
That summer, he was a difference-maker for Portugal. After coming off the bench at 1-1 in the semi-final of the Nations League, he assisted Cristiano Ronaldo for his third to seal the win. Guedes had earned a spot in the starting XI for the final, and scored the winner against the Netherlands – a firm drive from the edge of the box – his first competitive international goal.
This is where his story took a turn for the worse. He suffered a sprained ankle which coincided with the off-field chaos at Valencia. Marcelino was replaced by Albert Celades and Guedes only played 21 La Liga matches, registering just two goals and two assists. Whether the injury made him more self-conscious and he played within himself, only he will know, but the Guedes on the pitch was not the same scintillating player seen in previous years.
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Under Javi Gracia, his form did pick up last season, chalking up five goals and five assists, but he had lost his place in a Portugal squad full of competition in attacking areas. He missed much of the recent Nations League cycle and failed to make the Euro 2020 squad. Fast forward to this season and the third act of his undulating career arc – a triumphant return to form, even surpassing the performances of his earlier career. Guedes has been fundamental for José Bordalás’ Valencia this season, and is (along with Carlos Soler) their best and most productive player.
A progressive carrier and passer, Guedes commits defenders with his mazy dribbles and creates space for other attackers. Under Bordalás, hard work off the ball is of prime importance, and Guedes is a tireless worker, putting in a shift defensively, making his share of tackles, interceptions and recoveries, always determined to get his side on the front foot again. Still just 25 years old, his associative and combination play is improving all the time, and his peak years are still ahead of him.
But still it’s his attacking product which stands out. By the end of March, he has reached 11 goals and five assists in La Liga, his best combined tally in any season of his career. Those goal involvements have also been decisive: a 95th-minute assist to save a point at home to Marcelino’s Athletic Club; a 93rd- minute goal to get them back into a game they ended up saving; a 96th-minute assist for an equaliser against Atleti; two goals and an assist in the 4-3 derby win over Levante; an equaliser at home to Sevilla; and most recently, the winner at Elche, cleverly improvised off his knee.
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Perhaps his most important goal, however, was the only goal of the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg at home to Athletic, the goal to send Mestalla into raptures and Valencia into another final.
Across Europe’s top five leagues, Guedes (16) has been directly involved in more goals than any other Portuguese player. Yes, that’s more than Ronaldo (12+3), Fernandes (9+6), Jota (13+1), Silva (10+2) and João Félix (6+4). With all due respect to Valencia, they don’t boast the supporting cast of Liverpool or the two Manchester clubs. It is even more remarkable, therefore, that Guedes was an unused substitute as Portugal succumbed to a 2-1 home defeat against Serbia in the final qualifier.
With Portugal facing an all-or-nothing match now against Turkey – the last time they failed to qualify for a World Cup was 1998 – Guedes is worth his place in the team. He has already proven his value on the international stage, and is in the form of his life. Far from being a gamble against some of the bigger names, Guedes represents a safe bet for Santos. Whether he will take it is another matter, but Portugal’s place in Qatar is at stake.