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Can Fernandes finally deliver for Portugal at Euro after Man United brilliance?

  /  autty

As Portugal prepare to defend the European Championship crown they won so unexpectedly in France five summers ago, they can boast one of football's most in-form players.

Twenty four goals and 14 assists for his club this season certainly indicates someone brimming with confidence, someone ready to move from a demanding campaign into the tournament with one graceful bound.

And no, for a change, it's not him. Despite a haul of over 30 goals for Juventus in 2020-21 and his enduring class, Cristiano Ronaldo simply won't be able to single-handedly heave Portugal to glory again.

This time Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes will have as much, if not more, influence on their chances of navigating a fiendish group containing Germany and France before progressing deep into the knockout rounds.

And yet, on the face of it, Fernandes doesn't have a very impressive record in international football. In 27 appearances for his country, the playmaker has come up with just two goals - those coming against Algeria and Luxembourg - and four assists.

It hardly looks like the return of someone about to rip up Euro 2020, however talismanic they have been for their club over the last 15 months.

Fernandes is 26 and he might have expected a little more out of international football by now. He was part of the Portugal squad that won the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019 but often it's been a story of frustration.

Despite featuring prominently in Portugal's youth teams and captaining the under-21s, Fernandes was completely ignored by coach Fernando Santos - who is preparing to lead the national side into a third major tournament - while he played in Italy with first Udinese and then Sampdoria.

In fairness, Portugal weren't short of creative options at Euro 2016. As well as Ronaldo, they had the likes of Nani, Joao Moutinho, Adrien Silva, Renato Sanches and Joao Mario. It's difficult to see where Fernandes slotted in.

But as soon as Fernandes returned to Portugal and signed for Sporting Lisbon in the summer of 2017, it's almost like his blip immediately appeared on the radar of the national team coach.

His debut came later that year, 34 minutes off the bench against Saudi Arabia, but despite being named in 38 Portugal squads, he has only started 19 games and been brought off the bench in a further eight.

His appearances at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, when his now club-mate Edinson Cavani and Uruguay sent Portugal tumbling out at the last-16 stage, were fleeting.

And it wasn't until the latter half of 2019, shortly before his £68million move to Old Trafford, that Fernandes became a regular starter for Portugal.

Since then his club form has been so irresistible that he can no longer be ignored. But it's really only in qualification for Euro 2020 and the Nations League held last year that Fernandes has been a regular starter. Even then, the goals and assists haven't exactly flowed.

One of the enduring issues is that Santos favours a 4-3-3 set-up, which leaves Fernandes as more of a No 8 than a No 10 and unable to influence things as much.

In other matches, he has been deployed on the left side of midfield when we know from United that he typically starts in the middle. Fernandes is renowned more for the defence-splitting pass than the cross from wide.

Another contributing factor to his lack of international goals is that he doesn't take penalties for Portugal. No prizes for guessing who does.

Fernandes has boosted his United goal tally through his unerring penalty-taking ability - scoring 12 this season and missing only one - but it's Ronaldo who pulls rank in the national side.

The other reason, alluded to earlier, is that Portugal isn't and hasn't been short of players with a similar skillset.

The defensive-minded William Carvalho, also formerly of Sporting and now with Real Betis, was a Santos mainstay for a long time, taking up a midfield spot.

Mario, Pizzi, Mourinho, Sanches, Bernardo Silva and Ruben Neves are all among an embarrassment of riches in the Fernandes position for Portugal over the past few years.

But after such a remarkable season at club level, this will unquestionably be the first major tournament where Fernandes starts regularly.

Every tournament preview will identify him (and Ronaldo) as the main danger men in Portugal's side. Rightly so.

What's most astonishing is the man's stamina. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has become so reliant on him to conjure those decisive moments for United that he rarely gets a game off.

Even when Solskjaer tries to rest Fernandes in the FA Cup, he invariably ends up being brought on because his team-mates are struggling.

Solskjaer's management of Fernandes' fitness can certainly be questioned. He started in the UEFA Europa League last-16, second leg against Real Sociedad when United led 4-0 on aggregate and played 73 minutes against Granada in the next round with a 2-0 lead.

So he won't report for Portugal duty in early June feeling fresh, but then who will be fresh at the tournament after one of the most condensed seasons ever?

It was speculated that Fernandes was beginning to flag after a run of only two goals in 14 games during the spring. He blew that theory out of the water by scoring twice and creating another two in that 6-2 demolition of Roma.

So there's every reason Fernandes can still illuminate Euro 2020. It may be his time at last for Portugal.