It was only a glimpse, 14 minutes and 42 seconds to be exact, but a late cameo in Portugal’s defeat of Hungary nevertheless amounted to another important step in the rehabilitation of Renato Sanches.
Portugal’s defence of the title will be strengthened further should his career come full circle at Euro 2020. After an increasingly anxious 84 minutes at the Puskas Arena it was Fernando Santos’s substitutes and switches that gave Cristiano Ronaldo the platform for his record-breaking performance on Tuesday. Chief among them was Rafa Silva, the Benfica forward who replaced Bernardo Silva in the 71st minute and had a decisive influence on all three goals. His claims to start against Germany on Saturday must surely have been enhanced.
There may not be the same clamour for Sanches to start in Munich although he too was involved in every goal – sharp, positive passes contributing to the breakthrough and Ronaldo’s final flourish; a strong, committed recovery and incisive ball leading to the penalty that enabled the 36-year-old to overtake Michel Platini as the European Championships’ all-time leading goalscorer.
Sanches repaid Santos’s faith in Budapest. That the coach turned to the midfielder in the 81st minute, with João Félix left on the bench and the Puskas Arena in meltdown over Szabolcs Schon’s disallowed goal seconds earlier, was itself reward for the slow but steady recovery of a career that was in peril before he joined Lille in 2019.
Five years ago, Sanches was the rising teenage star of the Portugal team that triumphed at Euro 2016. Everything seemed possible then for an 18-year-old who had ended his first full season as a senior professional having played a leading role in Benfica’s league title, lifted his country’s first European Championship and been named Uefa’s young player of the tournament. And with one lucrative, premature step into the big time it all went spectacularly wrong.
Bayern Munich signed him that momentous summer for €35m, rising to €80m depending on achievements. The extra €45m was never paid as the teenager struggled for game-time in an illustrious midfield, struggled with a new language, a new environment and eventually struggled to keep his self-discipline off the pitch. After one frustrating, injury-hit season, the fourth most expensive signing in Bayern’s history at the time found himself in the unlikely setting of Swansea where Paul Clement, a former assistant to Carlo Ancelotti in Munich, used his connections to secure a season-long loan.
Another bad move, remembered mainly for Sanches passing to an advertising hoarding he mistook for a Swansea teammate at Chelsea, left the midfielder’s reputation and confidence in tatters. Clement said: “He was far more damaged than I thought. It was really sad. He was a boy who had almost got the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
Circumstances may have conspired against Sanches but he did not help himself. After an initially encouraging return to Bayern under their new coach, Niko Kovac the midfielder lost patience over his limited starting opportunities the following season. He was fined €10,000 for missing post-match training and going home after an opening day draw against Hertha Berlin, although he departed only having announced that he wanted to leave in a post-match interview, annoyed at being on the bench once again. His wish was granted a week later. Finally, as Lille’s record €25m signing, he had made the right move.
Sanches has rediscovered form and belief in France. His energy and creativity were a major factor in Lille ending Paris Saint-Germain’s run of three successive league titles There is now talk of another lucrative move as a result.
Experience may teach Sanches to tread with caution. For now there is a reputation to rebuild on the European Championship stage. It was only a glimpse against Hungary but it underlined how deep is the talent at Santos’s disposal.
“I brought Rafa on who is fast and the game opened up,” the Portugal head coach said. “I wanted to give Raphaël [Guerreiro] more room on the left so I took Diogo [Jota] off and moved Ronaldo a bit more to the left. I brought André Silva and Renato on to move the ball up from midfield. We wanted to play a more vertical game and free up Rafa. I think it was good enough. We won 3-0.”