Portugal wonderkid Sanches is all braids and brawn
By John Geddie
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - One of Europe's most expensive teenagers Renato Sanches has yet to nail down a starting spot with Portugal but the brawny midfielder is making his presence felt on the continent's biggest stage.
With his box-to-box style and braided hair, Sanches has drawn comparisons with Dutchman Edgar Davids and a 35 million euro ($39 million) move to Germany's Bayern Munich has only increased expectations on the 18-year old.
Doubts about his pedigree, however, were reduced by his substitute appearance in Portugal's last-16 win over Croatia which earned him the man-of-the-match award and should ensure he plays some role in the quarter-final against Poland on Thursday.
"He (Sanches) is still growing and it's up to me to analyse and to decide if and when he can be useful to the team," Portugal coach Fernando Santos said on Wednesday.
Born in Lisbon to parents from Cape Verde, Sanches is an aggressive player with the engine to drop back and do the dirty work in defence and surge up the park to feed his front men with pinpoint passes.
While his selection against Croatia left many commentators scratching their heads, no one else really stood out in a turgid game in which there were no efforts on target until the goal in the 117th minute.
Sanches's introduction brought an edge to Portugal's defence, a directness to their attack, and provided the link that eventually allowed them to break the deadlock.
Moments after Croatia went close with a header off the post, Sanches picked up the ball deep in his own half and started a surging run up the field.
With the goal in sight, he did not panic or attempt a speculative effort himself. He calmly picked out winger Nani, who fed Ronaldo for a shot and Ricardo Quaresma nodded in the rebound to seal the match.
Coach Santos has put a lot of faith in Sanches, blooding him in the 71st minute of their opening match against Iceland when he surpassed Cristiano Ronaldo's record and became his country's youngest ever player in a major tournament.
Santos sent him on as a substitute in Portugal's must-not-lose 3-3 draw with Hungary in the final group match and introduced him again just after the break against Croatia.
Yet if Sanches does have one weakness, it is a tendency to get carried away. Perhaps to be expected for the youngest player left in the tournament, after the departure of England teenager Marcus Rashford, Sanches conceded five fouls against Croatia.
His coach, though, will probably see that as a risk worth taking because he has the ability to do something special.
In his senior debut for his club Benfica last season, Sanches scored a stunning goal from 30 metres on the way to a 3-0 win over Academica.
By the time the Champions League came around, he kept Brazilian striker Hulk quiet in their last-16 tie against Zenit St Petersburg and shone in both home and away legs in their narrow defeat by Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals.
"He is by far one of the best young players in Europe," outgoing Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola said after the win over Benfica.
"He's everywhere on the pitch."
($1 = 0.8990 euros)
(Editing by Ed Osmond)