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'In these matches, Fernandes was not playing' - Man Utd star's fight to thrive in Ronaldo's Portugal shadow

09:00 GMT 23/06/2021
Bruno Fernades Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal GFX
The 26-year-old has not been at his best during the Seleccao's opening two group games as he gets to grips with a different role under Fernando Santos

In a district north of the city of Budapest lies the sports complex that Hungarian side Vasas usually call home. 

Historically, they are a club who have enjoyed their own achievements in Europe, reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1958.

But none of their players, past or present, quite compare to the guests who have taken up temporary residency at their home. 

Walk into the training hall on the complex and you are greeted by the giant faces of 10 superstars of the modern game plastered on hoardings.

Images of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe, Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes adorn the walls of the makeshift base of the Portugal national team, serving as a reminder of the talent within Fernando Santos’ squad at Euro 2020. 

After their performance in losing to Germany in their second Group F game, though, it is a reminder that needs serving.

The defending European champions' roster may read as a roll call of some of the best players in the game, but they were undone in Munich on Saturday and, while it seems unlikely, it is still possible that they could be dumped out before the knockout rounds commence. 

There has been plenty of debate since that 4-2 defeat in Munich as to what went wrong.

“Things didn’t go as we had planned, but we’re working to rectify this little detour,” midfielder Joao Moutinho told reporters. “We tried to put into practice what the head coach expects, but we didn’t manage to do against Germany.

"But this is football. Sometimes it ends up well, sometimes not so much.”

One of the issues that led to the result at the Allianz Arena was that Portugal lost the midfield battle, and while Fernandes cannot shoulder the entire blame for his national side’s defeat, he was part of the problem. 

Fernandes is the instigator for his club Manchester United, the heartbeat of the team and the man that can continually make the difference in the final third, but he was quiet against Hungary in Portugal's tournament opener and his stats made for even sorrier reading against Germany. 

Before he was substituted off in the 64th minute, he managed just one key pass, no shots, no tackles, no dribbles and no interceptions. The 26-year-old was, for the most part, anonymous.

"We need to play with 11 players, but in these two matches, Bruno Fernandes was on the pitch but not playing," ex-United manager and Portugal native, Jose Mourinho, told talkSPORT. "I hope he turns up against France, because he's a player with incredible potential.

"He can pass, he can score. He can get penalties, he can score penalties, he can score free-kicks. He has a lot to give, but the reality is in these two matches he was not there."

However, part of the conundrum facing Fernandes - as well as a number of his team-mates - is that in this team they are merely the support cast for Ronaldo.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner is the player who commands all the attention, and Portugal’s system is quite often based to suit him.

As the photographers cameras clicked ferociously away at the Illovsky Rudolf Stadion on Monday afternoon, you did not need to look up to know which member of the Portugal squad they would be aiming at during their open training session. 

There was Ronaldo stood with his hand on his hip, staring straight into the stand where the media were watching Santos’ side train as they prepare to face France on Wednesday. Ronaldo knows everyone has come to see him. 

The rest of the squad were quite literally hiding in the shadows of the stadium during another hot and sunny day in Budapest, and that is sometimes the feeling you get when watching them as a team. 

Fernandes, for example, is used to being the talisman for United. He has 40 goals and 25 assists in all competitions in the 18 months he has been at Old Trafford, but he does not hold the same seniority for Portugal. That, of course, is reserved for Ronaldo. 

Fernandes has to accept that he is no longer the go-to man for penalties and free-kicks too, though he insists that is not an issue. 

“We have many players who can take free-kicks in their clubs and here. It’s not important who takes it,” he explained earlier in the tournament.

Regardless of his acceptance of his role, Fernandes seems like a different personality playing with the national side to when he pulls on a United shirt.

Where he is often seen throwing his hands in the air at every misplaced pass under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s watch, he appears more reserved in a Portugal shirt. In some ways, it is as if he accepts it is Ronaldo’s job only to react in such a manner so as to motivate (or belittle) his team-mates. 

Fernandes' determination has not waned, and he was like a dog with a bone the way he chased down every ball in training on Monday, but now he needs to replicate that in games.

Ronaldo, with three goals and an assist so far, is continuing to prove why he remains Portugal's main man, which is why Santos will continue to formulate a system that best accommodates the 36-year-old. 

But Fernandes cannot wait until Ronaldo has retired to really make his mark on the national side. While he has had a poor start to the tournament by his own high standards, he has the talent and capability to produce the form he has shown so often for United. 

If Portugal are going to retain the title they won five years ago, they will need more than Ronaldo to be firing.

There is not, then, a bigger or better occasion than a clash against the current world champions for Fernandes to kickstart his tournament.