If you looked at the football transfer rumour mill during the tail end of 2020, you would have seen plenty of reports linking Benfica’s Uruguayan centre-forward Darwin Nunez to Barcelona.
Ostensibly, the reports made sense.
Barcelona are desperate for someone to lead the line having let Luis Suarez go last summer, a decision that now seems premature. Nunez, meanwhile, had had a brilliant start to the season, banging in goals and giving weight to the idea that he could one day reach the level of his compatriot Suarez.
Yet the more time that passed, the more ridiculous the rumour appeared.
That is not a slight at Nunez, but a reflection of the hole which Barcelona have dug themselves into.
While Nunez maintained his performance levels, notching assists to go with his goals and adding another couple of million to any potential fee with each passing month, the seriousness of Barcelona’s financial plight became clearer and clearer.
The Catalan giants have even tried to negotiate a temporary salary reduction with their playing staff to improve cash flow. As interim president Carles Tusquets said in November: “We have to reduce short-term expenses.”
With Barcelona scrabbling for change down the back of the sofa, the idea that they could afford a player who has excelled since he was bought by Benfica for a club-record €24million in September is now – barring some incredible financial gymnastics – utterly fanciful.
With Barcelona off the agenda, Nunez’s agent said his client “will remain at Benfica at least until 2022”.
🇺🇾 Darwin Núñez, the next Benfica wonder-kid scores their winner tonight.
The 21-year-old has scored 4 and got 4 assists in his first 7 games for the club. 🔥
🎥: @vsports_pt pic.twitter.com/2rgYY7jJfd
— FotMob (@FotMob) October 26, 2020
That, though, will not stop the other giants of European football from sniffing around. And on Friday night, Nunez has the perfect chance to show he can thrive at the elite level.
Benfica travel to Porto to take on their old rivals in O Classico with the two teams level on points in the Primeira Liga, both looking to chase down Sporting Lisbon, who currently hold a four-point lead.
They will also be seeking to avenge the Portuguese Supercup defeat they suffered just before Christmas when Porto ran out 2-0 winners.
Fortunately for Benfica, Nunez has been in brilliant form since that defeat. In his last three league games, he has two goals and two assists, including a cultured chest down and cross for Haris Seferovic to finish in last weekend’s game with Tondela.
Nunez is certainly not just a finisher, which shows in his stats. In the Primeira Liga this season, he has three just goals but six assists, two more than any other player in the division.
He also jointly leads the league in terms of big chances created, with eight, the same number as team-mate Alex Grimaldo.
Nunez is more than capable of running the channels, stretching defences and combining with his fellow attackers to drag Benfica forward and is also good in a high press, something valued at the club.
Yet while he has been creator-in-chief in domestic football, Nunez turns into a deadly marksman in the Europa League. Five in five appearances in Europe have come at a rate of one every 68 minutes.
Darwin Núñez’ goal earlier today was of high quality.
A resilient run, followed up with a deadly finish. 🔝 pic.twitter.com/NqB2Ld6Q8w
— Warriors of Uruguay (@UruguayanHeroes) July 13, 2020
In November, after Nicolas Otamendi had rather predictably got himself sent off for a last-man foul in the first half, Nunez came on to help 10-man Benfica back from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 in a wild game with Rangers.
He set up Rafa Silva quite brilliantly for Benfica’s second before slotting away the equaliser in injury time. His goal demonstrated why he is so dangerous, lurking on the shoulder before running onto Luca Waldschmidt’s through-ball and finishing calmly past Allan McGregor.
After spending last season in the Spanish second tier with Almeria, who took him to Andalusia from his boyhood club Penarol in 2019, he has found the step up into European competition a breeze and consequently earned another chance at international level.
In October, he made his competitive debut for Uruguay, playing alongside Suarez. The following month, he bagged his first goal in World Cup Qualifiers, a fantastic long-range strike to beat David Ospina and complete a 3-0 win over Colombia.
Scouts from all over Europe will be tuning in for Benfica’s trip to Porto on Friday to see, as Nunez’s club manager Jorge Jesus put it: “All this decision-making ability, finishing and speed.”
Jesus was happy to let last season’s top scorer and current Harry Kane back-up Carlos Vinicius leave to bring Nunez in, a demonstration of how highly he rates the Uruguayan. Jesus has even stated a belief that Nunez may eventually be worth more than the €126million Atletico Madrid paid Benfica for Joao Felix.
The #U20WC Goal of the Day goes to Darwin Nunez 😱
What an absolute rocket from the 🇺🇾 @Uruguay forward 🚀 pic.twitter.com/aE8cYIsxT3
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) May 24, 2019
In October, Jesus told SportTV: “We must not forget that he is a kid, he is 21 years old, there is a lot about the game that he does not know yet. He will learn with me and Benfica.
“[But Nunez] was Benfica’s most expensive purchase, and when there is no pandemic, he will be the most expensive sale. He will be a world-class player. Unfortunately for me, maybe I will lose him in a short time.”
In terms of learning, Nunez is in the right place. Benfica have a glittering reputation when it comes to improving players and Jorge Jesus is a fine coach, if an unfortunate human being.
But should the Uruguayan maintain his form for the rest of this season and things improve economically by the summer, one of Europe’s superclubs – at least one not called Barcelona – may be tempted to lodge a substantial bid.
After signing the £60million bargain Ruben Dias from Benfica in the summer, Manchester City have been linked to Nunez, who would appear to fit the Sergio Aguero-shaped hole that will soon appear at the Etihad.
If Nunez’s ambition is to move onwards and upwards, then the Classico is the stage on which to stake his claim. It is the biggest game in Portuguese football, and with a lot at stake in terms of the league table, there is significant pressure to get a result.
But if Nunez can take his recent form to the Estadio do Dragao, then Benfica will fancy their chances.
By Joshua Law
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