Bruno Fernandes sent Paul Pogba a message in the wake of his Manchester United team-mate’s man of the match display for France against Germany last week. “Happy for you, but MVP only today,” the Portugal midfielder said in a playful nod to their Group F meeting in Budapest on Wednesday evening.
Portugal’s implosion against Germany on Saturday, when they led courtesy of a stunning counter-attacking goal before slumping to a 4-2 defeat, has dramatically raised the stakes ahead of Wednesday's final group game against France.
Holders Portugal, 3-0 victors over Hungary in their opening match, need a response and the pressure on Fernandes to deliver was only amplified by his anaemic showing against the 2014 world champions.
It was a performance that did little to quieten the critics who claim United’s talisman does not influence big games enough and earned rebukes from Graeme Souness, who decried Fernandes’ perceived petulance, and Lee Dixon, who condemned the Portuguese’s reaction at 3-1 down and accused him of “just strolling on the ball”.
“He had a chance to run into space and commit a few players ahead of him but there was no energy in his run at all,” Dixon lamented.
Perhaps, though, there were other factors behind Fernandes’ lethargy. No player across Europe’s top five leagues has played more games for club and country in the 2020/21 season than the 70 Fernandes has managed and only two players - Barcelona’s Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong and Fernandes’ Portugal team-mate Ruben Dias, who, coincidentally, also looked well short against Germany - have played more minutes than the 5,455 United’s playmaker has amassed.
If he is struggling, maybe it is because there is very little left in the tank after a gruelling past 12 months in which he has been given very little rest.
Indeed, since the Premier League resumed in June last year, Fernandes has played a staggering 83 games and was afforded just 19 days' holiday between United losing in the Europa League semi-final to Sevilla on August 16 last year and Portugal facing Croatia on September 5.
On 38 occasions over that period, he has enjoyed just two or fewer days rest between matches and only three days of rest on 19 occasions. United’s involvement in the Europa League final late last month meant Fernandes also had only eight days between that game and a 31-minute run-out in a pre-Euros warm-up against Spain on June 4.
By any reckoning, it has been an onerous work load and maybe now Fernandes, and Portugal, are paying the price, just as United seemed to during the final couple of months of the campaign when his output waned quite noticeably.
Whether it is entirely to blame for Fernandes’ drop off is another matter. The Liverpool and Holland midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum has played more games than anyone over the past season - bar Fernandes - and he has looked full of energy en route to his country collecting maximum points from the group stage, scoring three times and revelling in an advanced role.
De Jong, too, has been sprightly, despite racking up the second most minutes of any player in Europe’s top five leagues in 2020/21, although Holland do have an easier group than Portugal.
Germany was not the first big game in which Fernandes has disappointed over the last year. United failed to score in six league games against so-called “big six” opposition and two of the matches Fernandes did find the net in were heavy defeats to Tottenham (6-1) and Liverpool (4-2).
Fernandes also disappointed in United’s shambolic 3-2 Champions League defeat to RB Leipzig, despite scoring a late penalty, the Carabao Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester City in January and the Europa League final against Villareal but the idea he never shows in those sort of fixtures is perhaps unfair.
He scored a dramatic winner in the 3-2 FA Cup win over Liverpool, the 2-1 Champions League victory away to Paris St-Germain and in the impressive 2-0 triumph over champions City in early March, before his form began to dip.
What is clear, though, is that he needs to offer far more against France than he managed against Germany with Portugal’s Euro hopes on the line.
No shots, successful crosses, dribbles, tackles or interceptions told its own story and, defensively, he was bypassed too easily, even if the Portugal coach, Fernando Santos, blamed his own tactics and failure to get to grips with Germany’s wing-backs, Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens.
Fernandes became accustomed to upstaging Pogba in a United shirt. Now he needs to do it again for Portugal.