Cast your mind back to three months ago. Manchester City, fresh off completing the signing of Jack Grealish for a record fee of £100 million, looked set to add to their superteam with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo from Juventus. All of this seemed to fuel Bernardo Silva’s desire to leave the Etihad and join a club where he would find more protagonism, and Pep Guardiola publicly confirmed that the Portuguese playmaker was one of several City players who was pushing for a transfer in the final weeks of the summer window. However, his wage demands and City’s asking price proved a stumbling block for Europe’s major clubs who still found themselves reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, and when the window closed on September 1, Bernardo was still a City player; Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, had changed his tune at the eleventh hour and headed to the other side of Manchester.
The 36-year-old forward has had a productive return to Old Trafford with 9 goals in 13 appearances — including a heroic brace to snatch a 2-2 draw against Bergamo on Tuesday — but he was rendered invisible on Saturday as Manchester City dominated and took a 2-0 win at the Theater of Dreams. It is the latest damning result for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who gave himself a lifeline after his United side thrashed Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 last weekend and prompted Spurs to sack Nuno Espirito Santo and appoint Antonio Conte — who had been previously eyed as a potential successor to the Norwegian manager. As Cristiano, Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Dalot prepare to jet off to Portugal for the final international break of the year, they will reunite with Ruben Dias, Bernardo and Joao Cancelo, whose City team sit six points ahead of their crosstown rivals, as well as Diogo Jota, whose Liverpool side lead United by five points.
The 2-0 scoreline simply doesn’t do justice to City’s dominance — it looked more like a training session against their U-17’s than a Manchester derby. Joao Cancelo was responsible for both goals, firing a tempting cross which Eric Bailly deflected into his own net before setting up the second with a pinpoint ball, but perhaps the most impressive performance of the day was his Portugal teammate and fellow Seixal product, Bernardo Silva.
The Excellent Bernardo Silva
The ex-Benfica and Monaco playmaker delivered a trademark performance that combined his divine talent and technique with his nonstop workrate and dedication to winning back the ball, weaving his way through a sea of red shirts whilst equally eager to pick up a loose ball. After an Eric Bailly own goal allowed the Cityzens to take the lead early on, they doubled their lead on the cusp of halftime as Bernardo cut inside and found a wide-open Cancelo, whose cross found his compatriot to beat David De Gea at the near post. It was a cunning goal that had left even the commentators befuddled, believing that De Gea, who had kept United alive with a string of clutch saves, had managed to keep out Bernardo’s effort until realizing three seconds later that he had squeezed it into the goal.
Rather than sulk and complain that he has, once again, not secured a move away from the Etihad, Bernardo has continued to play a vital role for Pep Guardiola’s side and will be looking to pick up his fourth league title since arriving in Manchester. ‘Bubblegum,’ as he is referred to by his teammates, blends world-class technique and intelligence with a hard-working nature and is an example for all attacking midfielders who are looking to make it in a world where the #10 is increasingly being phased out.
Whilst Bernardo Silva was unable to showcase his talents for his boyhood club before emerging as a star at Monaco and Manchester City, Benfica fans have nevertheless grown accustomed to attacking midfielders and wingers who sprinkle magic with every touch — Joao Felix, Rui Costa, Nicolas Gaitan, Simao — the list goes on and on. These players have enchanted the Estadio da Luz and have set a standard that is not only expected but demanded by Benfiquistas. One player who has often struggled to meet this standard is Everton Sousa Soares, who joined Benfica on a five-year deal on August 14, 2020 for a fee of €20 million.
Everton Sousa Soares Struggles
Born in Maracanaú, Ceará, Everton began his career in Fortaleza’s academy before joining Grêmio in 2012, making his professional debut two years later and winning the 2017 Copa Libertadores alongside the likes of Arthur Melo and Lucas Barrios, before winning the Copa América Golden Boot in 2019 and leading Brazil to victory on home soil. It proved enough to secure a move to Benfica and rescue Fortaleza from financial turmoil, with the Leão do Pici receiving a solidarity payment of €700,000.
“The money from Cebolinha’s sale saved Fortaleza,” said club president Marcelo Paz in an interview on January 20. “If it weren’t for the money, we would be in arrears. It was a blessing. Every year we wanted . God is so good that he let Cebolinha be sold when we needed it most. It was to pay off debts, pay salaries and bring the club here with a good reality compared to other clubs. It’s not easy. But we will manage.”
Today, Fortaleza currently sit fifth in the league table, good enough for a spot in the Copa Libertadores second stage, whilst Grêmio, a mere four years after winning the Libertadores, are headed for relegation. Their dire situation has prompted violence from their supporters and cruel derision from their rivals — after crosstown rivals Internacional defeated them in the ‘Grenal’ on Saturday, Internacional players hoisted cardboard coffins to celebrate Grêmio’s impending relegation, prompting a scuffle between the two sets of players in Porto Alegre.
In an interview with the Brazilian podcast ‘Tudo em off,’ Everton revealed this week that he had been closely following Grêmio’s situation, often staying up until 3 a.m. to watch their games, and that he had trouble understanding the Portuguese style of talking and even asked for a translator due to how quickly they spoke. Everton was fined for giving the interview without the club’s permission, the latest in a string of embarrassing results for a player who has struggled to live up to his price tag so far.
Faith From Jesus
And yet, Jorge Jesus started Everton for the third time in four games on Sunday, with Roman Yaremchuk dropping to the bench and Rafa Silva and Darwin Nunez playing alongside Cebolinha, or ‘Little Onion’ in attack. The hosts took the lead within two minutes as Álex Grimaldo headed home a cross from Nunez, but Braga quickly responded with a string of well-worked attacks, aggressive pressing, and eventually an equalizer from captain Ricardo Horta in the 12th minute. Braga continued to pick up steam as Benfica’s luck turned sour with Joao Mario being forced off with an apparent muscular injury, with 19-year-old Paulo Bernardo, who had just made his first team debut this week, replacing the veteran midfielder.
Shortly after, whilst trying to block a shot from Wenderson Galeno, Lucas Verissimo picked up a “very serious” knee injury, as Jorge Jesus stated after the game, and was forced to come off with 20-year-old defender Morato taking his place. With two key starters hobbling off within the first 35 minutes, it seemed that Benfica were set for another long day at the office. After capping off a perfect start to the season with a 3-0 win against Barcelona on September 29, Benfica had since lost to Portimonense and Bayern Munich (twice), drawn to Estoril and Vitoria de Guimaraes, and required last-minute winners to defeat newly promoted Vizela and second-tier side Trofense.
Grit From Benfica
Instead of cowering in the face of adversity, Benfica fought back as Everton wriggled past two Braga players and teed up Grimaldo on the edge of the box, whose shot was parried by Matheus into the direction of Nunez who found himself unmarked at the far post and did well to rebound the effort into goal with a well-placed half-volley. Shortly after, Rafa Silva, who had spent three years at Braga before joining Benfica for €16.4 million, combined with Darwin and Everton to double the Eagles’ lead, And in the third minute of extra time, Everton broke Nuno Sequeira’s ankles — literally, the Portuguese defender was stretchered off with a serious injury afterwards — before picking up his second assist and sliding a through ball to Rafa Silva who calmly placed his shot past Matheus.
It was a physical, hard-fought first half that saw three players come off with injuries and five goals scored, a misleading scoreline that spoke more to Benfica’s abnormal efficiency in front of goal — as well as their mental fortitude to respond after Verissimo’s potentially season-ending injury. Braga responded well to Grimaldo’s opening goal by pressing high up and carving out a variety of chances, but once again, their lack of bite in front of goal proved fatal. The Benfica supporters around me lamented “Parecemos o Tondela” (we look like Tondela), “Volta Cervi” (come back Franco Cervi, a player who had left for Celta Vigo last summer after being sparingly used under Jorge Jesus) and “Foda-se” (you can look that one up) as Braga created chance after chance, and yet, the hosts headed into the break with a three-goal lead.
After halftime, the floodgates opened. Rafa Silva drove forward in the central position and teed up Everton, who faked a shot and left Paulo Oliveira on his backside before slotting into the bottom right corner of the net. Braga’s humiliation was complete as Everton tip-toed into the box and connected on a low-driven cross from Nunez to complete his brace. The Little Onion continued to make Braga players and supporters weep with a tremendous display in attack, and by the time he made way for Pizzi in the 65th minute, Benfica supporters showered the Brazilian with a standing ovation. The Eagles were in cruise control and could have very well added to their lead had it not been for a string of top-notch saves by Matheus, and whilst Braga’s high line certainly did not do themselves any favours in the first half, their lack of individual quality is the biggest reason behind the resounding defeat.
“Our team came from a game with Paços de Ferreira in which we had to play with 10 players, and three days later we had a brilliant game in European competition and after three days we had this game,” stated Carvalhal after the match. “We wanted to play in the same way and we didn’t have the energy to win it, we tried to press high and sometimes it’s enough to miss by a millimetre, a fraction of a second and with the players that Benfica have in front, we started to feel problems. Our players tried, but the energy wasn’t there.”
Friday Night Lights
On a frigid November night in Lisbon, Benfica delivered a cathartic, ruthless performance against a Europa League side and secured a vital win that will see them go into the international break just one point behind Porto and Sporting. Braga, on the other hand, trail newly promoted Estoril Praia by a point and sit two and three points ahead of Portimonense and Vitoria de Guimaraes, respectively. It remains to be seen how serious Verissimo’s injury is, and if so, whether Jorge Jesus will continue with his three-man backline with Morato playing in the place of his compatriot or switch to a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1.
Everton Cebolinha, on the other hand, delivered a world-class performance befitting of his price tag and could very well kick on and usurp Roman Yaremchuk for a starting spot in the long-term. Benfica return from the international break on November 19 with a cup match against Pacos de Ferreira, before taking on injury-plagued Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Only a win will suffice for Benfica to head into the final Champions League matchday in second place, and Cebolinha could play a crucial role in securing that result.