Side to side Bernardo Silva measures little more than a medium-build Yorkshire Terrier. He would win games of Escondidas (Hide and Seek) in his native Lisbon by standing still behind one of the city’s many strategically placed lamp posts. However, for a man of such frail physique, he sure is pulling up a few trees at Manchester City.
Widely touted as the biggest talent to emerge from the breeding grounds of Portugal since Cristiano Ronaldo and the most gifted playmaker since Rui Costa hit his glorious stride in the mid 90s, City’s flying wide-midfielder is emerging as a star of the Premier League in Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side.
A hugely exciting prospect for some time, his brilliance has now reached a global stage that is bringing him to mainstream attention.
Silva’s mesmeric close control, creative bent, intelligent and economical use of space and time has been allied to a surprising keenness to get stuck in, a wonderfully basic but all-important English football attribute.
Standard bearer of a new generation
This enviable skill set had always been in evidence, even in his early days as one of hundreds of youth prospects on the free-flowing Benfica conveyor belt in Seixal. Part of a new wave of Portuguese talent all coming through at the same time (Raphael Guerreiro, André Gomes, João Mário, André Silva and Gelson Martins are all around the same age), Bernardo has perhaps become the one who has blossomed the quickest and developed the most.
An early departure to Monaco left many Benfiquistas puzzled as to how their club could let such a talent leave so early in his career, but money has often talked loudest for Os Encarnardos and on this occasion Monaco’s €15.75m gave them a mild bout of tinnitus.
They will still be shaking their heads at the Estádio da Luz today. For his one Benfica appearance looks a little on the meagre side after what transpired during two seasons on the Cote d’Azur with Monaco.
Showcasing his gritty determination and angel’s wand of a left foot in Ligue Un, Silva quickly rose to prominence in a Monaco side weighed down with young talent. 2016-17 saw Monaco’s star rise ever higher, with a run to the Champions League semi-finals and a league title success. It was the former that heralded the beginning of the end for Silva in the South of France, however. After negotiating a tough group comprising Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham and CSKA Moscow, where they finished top, Monaco were paired with Manchester City.
Impressing his future employer
City, in the early stages of Pep Guardiola’s charismatic renewal processes, had advanced from what might have been considered an even tougher group, including Barcelona, Monchengladbach and Celtic. They were not prepared for what met them in the first leg at a stadium well used to seeing a man called Silva call the shots, however, as a Bernardo-inspired Monaco gave them a real run for their money.
Silva’s first-half performance brought him a shower of accolades. His mesmeric dribbling, pacey enthusiasm and ability to thread eye-of-the-needle through passes to his rampaging colleagues produced a game high on quality and full to bursting with goals. Twice ahead in a crazily high-paced match, Monaco could thank Silva’s penetrative running and slaloming skills for their well-deserved lead.
Featuring mainly on the right flank, Silva continuously carried possession infield and onto his left foot with a trail of City players in his mazy wake. Doing this, he managed to carve himself precious space to feed the in-coming Radamel Falcao and Fabinho, who scored the early equaliser in just such a move.
With City’s own creative Silva being outshone for once, the home side needed to dig deep and eventually found the route to goal with an astonishing second half onslaught as Bernardo’s influence waned and his namesake in sky blue began to hit the high notes.
He had nevertheless left an indelible mark on Guardiola that would make up the Catalan’s mind about acquisitions for his second season in charge in Manchester. At the top of his wish-list was Bernardo Silva.
His fee had, meanwhile, jumped from €16m to €50m and the British press once again puffed out its chest and asked if such largesse was totally necessary. They had done the same when Belgian ace Kevin de Bruyne had arrived from Vfl Wolfsburg, citing his indifferent form for Chelsea before his stint in the Bundesliga, but had evidently not been paying much attention.
The little Portuguese midfielder has settled into his new environment with consummate ease, contributing panache and menace down the right flank of a side that has been driving all before it in this season’s Premier League. Being able to count the likes of namesake Silva, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, not to mention the audaciously talented De Bruyne, as team-mates has elevated Silva to elite status. That he does not look out of place is testament to a brittle looking player, who is built of stern stuff.
With City competing on all fronts up to the recent FA Cup exit at third tier Wigan, Guardiola has needed to carefully rotate his squad. Nominal first choice wide men Sane and Sterling have both hit injury problems, leaving the way clear for an extended run for Bernardo. To say that he has grasped the opportunity with both hands is a major understatement.
With goals against Arsenal and Chelsea in City’s thrilling last week (winning the League Cup, flattening Arsenal in their own ground and cowing Chelsea into such a state of submission at the weekend that the outgoing champions seemed afraid to leave their own half), Silva’s star has risen to new heights.
City fans, remembering the titanic Etihad battle in last season’s round of 16 between the two Silvas can now sit back and watch them play together, a sight that requires the wearing of sun glasses even in Manchester’s notoriously grey Irwell Riviera. For the time being a Silva brought in to replace a Silva is simply making things shine even more brightly by playing alongside him.
City supporters perish the thought of their Spanish playmaker ever giving up the ghost, but in Bernardo a light has appeared in the middle of that particular tunnel.
For the wiry Portuguese, a second domestic trophy with City beckons in the shape of a Premier League that City currently lead by 16 points. Who knows if a third will come in the shape of the Champions League, leaving the path open to an unprecedented 4th with Portugal in Russia this summer.
One can dream of course and, in Bernardo Silva’s case, many of those dreams seem to be coming true these days.
By Simon Curtis