Age dispute won't disrupt Sanches' meteoric rise
Sooner or later Renato Sanches may address the brewing controversy over his age but, for now, the Portuguese midfielder would more naturally be consumed with the prospect of having the biggest impact of any young footballer in Euro 2016.
As he prepares to face Wales in Lyon in the semi-final tonight, the accusation as to whether the most expensive teenager in Europe is really a teenager at all has surfaced again.
This time the former long-serving Auxerre coach Guy Roux has alleged that the 18-year-old midfielder from Lisbon is 24 and that the error has been sustained because his birth was registered five years later by his parents, who had separated by then.
The allegation is rejected wholesale by Sanches and his family and the feeling at Benfica has always been that the questions over his age are simply a smear started by Sporting Lisbon fans. Either way, his man-of-the-match performance against Poland in the quarter-finals confirmed that this is a player confident enough to run the game his way regardless of the intimidating presence of Cristiano Ronaldo in the same team.
Sanches was discovered by Benfica playing for the Lisbon youth team, Aguias da Musgueira, aged eight. He comes from the city's Musgueira neighbourhood, which, in time-honoured fashion for brilliant football prodigies, comes with all the usual stories of poverty and gangs. The story has it that Benfica signed him in exchange for 50 footballs, and 10 years on agreed a deal with Bayern Munich in May that could eventually be worth up to €60million.
Sanches's development has been swift in the past 12 months and it was telling that he was not even part of the Portugal U-21s squad who reached the European Championship final in the Czech Republic last summer.
He made his Benfica debut as substitute in October, played in the Champions League the following month and has not looked back since, winning a first cap for the Portugal team in March against Bulgaria.
Sanches was a long-term target for Manchester United and there was a time when that was his most likely destination, but the delay over sacking Louis van Gaal and appointing Jose Mourinho meant that it took too long. His agent, Jorge Mendes, took him to Bayern Munich, where Carlo Ancelotti had no hesitation in approving the deal for the player whose performances in France have vindicated that decision.
Bayern's investment in Sanches is acknowledgement that they have no 18-year-old on his level in their own academy but it was also recognition that the signs were the player could have a very good summer tournament, and that the price could even rise accordingly.
He plays with a positivity that makes him stand out in a very cautious and defensive Portugal side. Sanches plays on the balls of his feet, always ready to get on the move and go forward. His passing is crisp and he generally hits it early. He switches the play and, for one so young, is economical in what he does. There are never four touches when one will do.
Against Poland he was the outstanding player of the first half and scored Portugal's equaliser, albeit with a deflection off Grzegorz Krychowiak. Yet the fact that Sanches was able to compete with an experienced opponent such as PSG's Krychowiak, one of the best at what he does, demonstrates just how far ahead of the curve the young player has gone.
In the second half, his effect was negated by coach Fernnado Santos's decision to play him wide to stop Poland from getting down the flanks. The conservative coach may consider that an option for the Wales game, too, although it will be much more of a spectacle if the teenager is permitted to try to run the game from the No 10 position behind Ronaldo.
After the penalty shoot-out win over Poland, Sanches came into the press conference to explain why he had been so confident in dispatching his spot-kick, the second of five. "The coach trusted me and I was confident enough to take one," he said. "I was only thinking about scoring. I felt calm and collected. I walked up to the ball and did what I always do. I picked my side and I put it in."
It hardly needed saying that he was not one of those reluctant potential penalty-takers, including Joao Moutinho and Jose Fonte, who needed Ronaldo to cajole them on to the pitch. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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