Manuel Fernandes “the best player in Russia”

Lokomotiv Moscow became champions of Russia on Saturday for the first time in 14 years, with two Portuguese players at the forefront of attention.

Just like for the Seleção at Euro 2016, striker Eder has been a peripheral player for the Russian outfit. And just like that famous night in Paris, it was Eder, on as a substitute, who scored the late, decisive goal to fire Lokomotiv to a 1-0 victory over Zenit St. Petersburg and clinch the title.

Eder grabbed the headlines, but it is compatriot Manuel Fernandes who has been the Moscow club’s most important player in the triumph. That’s the view of broadcaster, journalist and Russian football expert John Bradley, who spoke to PortuGOAL.

It was Lokomotiv’s third Russian championship win, after lifting the crown in 2002 and 2004, curiously all under the same coach Yuri Semin. Now 70 years old, Semin admitted pre-match the pressure was getting to the players. The team had failed to win or even score in their previous three games, with city rivals Spartak and CSKA threatening to overtake Lokomotiv at the top as a result.

Super-sub does it again

Hosting Zenit, who are fighting for a Champions League spot, it looked like more dropped points were on the cards with the game still goalless going into the final moments, only for Eder, on as a 79th-minute substitute, to ghost in at the near post and convert a cross. It was only Eder’s 4th goal in 26 games, but it triggered wild celebrations among the fans, players and coaching staff.

Broadcaster John Bradley frequently covers Russian Premier League matches and was commentating on the Lokomotiv-Zenit game on Saturday. “Eder hasn’t had the easiest couple of years since scoring the goal that won the euros,” he says. “He arrived in Moscow as the ‘Euro 2016 matchwinner’ and I think he was expected to make a big impact. From a personal level, I think he will be disappointed that his main role in this Lokomotiv title success has been from the bench, especially considering Ari has missed much of the season injured.”

“But he has two scored two huge late goals to earn the side big wins. He did it away at Rostov earlier in the season and then, of course, came from the bench to get the winner in the last minute at the weekend. He may not have had the happiest of times in terms of regular starts for Lokomotiv, but he hasn’t half got a decent scriptwriter with what he’s done for club and country in the last couple of years.”

While sporadic albeit important contributions have been the hallmark of Eder’s time at Lokomotiv, it is a completely different story with midfielder Manuel Fernandes. The former Benfica, Everton, Valencia and Besiktas player has scored 14 goals in 39 games in all competitions this season, including two hat-tricks in the Europa League. So good has been Fernandes’ form that he is back in the running for a spot in Portugal’s World Cup squad, having been called up regularly by Seleção coach Fernando Santos in recent months.

Confidence and swagger

Bradley is unequivocal in his assessment of the 32-year-old. “I’m not the only one who would tell you that Manu has been, without any shadow of a doubt, the best player in Russia this year. He has always had a certain confidence and swagger but has backed that up with some really special performances, both domestically and in Europe too.”

“I don’t know what it is that has made a 70-year-old coach in Yuri Semin get the very best out of him, but the two have clicked wonderfully well and there was a lovely image of the two embracing following the clinching of the title at the weekend.”

The Portugal squad will be announced next week, on 17 May. What chance Manuel Fernandes mimicking that other great maverick of Portuguese football, Ricardo Quaresma, and finally making his mark for the Seleção in the twilight of his career?

by Tom Kundert


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