Bruno Fernandes can cement his status as Manchester United’s new talisman when the Portugal midfielder gets his first taste of the derby rivalry with Manchester City on Sunday.
Fernandes has made a flying start with United following his January move from Sporting Lisbon for an initial £47 million ($61 million).
The 25-year-old has scored three goals and provided two assists in his seven appearances, helping Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team extend their unbeaten run to nine games in all competitions.
Since the Alex Ferguson era ended in 2013, United have struggled to find players with the personality and presence to cope with the pressure of trying to emulate those golden days.
But the influential Fernandes already appears a perfect fit.
He has shown no signs of being intimidated by the task of becoming United’s leading man.
Said to be a vocal presence in training sessions, Fernandes displayed his leadership qualities with several animated discussions with Diogo Dalot, Scott McTominay and Fred during Thursday’s FA Cup fifth-round win at Derby.
“I like to see that in a player, he doesn’t change coming into a new team. He’s the same as he was at Sporting,” Solskjaer said.
“That’s a boy with confidence, with quality, good form and that’s his personality. Everyone should be themselves. He’s come in as a leader and he’s shown he’s a leader.”
United reportedly balked at Sporting’s summer asking price for Fernandes, but the fee they paid in the January window is already looking a bargain.
– ‘Lifted the standard’ –
Fernandes’ impact has been so notable that some critics claim Solskjaer and United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward should have gone harder to sign him in the close-season.
Among numerous issues that have bedevilled them this term, United have had problems with missed penalties.
So it was instructive to see the assertive way Fernandes seized the ball and calmly slotted home from the spot for his first United goal against Watford.
“Certainly Bruno has fitted in great on the pitch, and is as important around the pitch and in the dressing room,” said United assistant manager Michael Carrick.
“He has got a real presence about him and the lads have taken to him well. He has lifted the standard and the spirit within the squad.”
Fernandes’ form has raised fresh questions about the future of United’s malcontent midfielder Paul Pogba, who is currently sidelined by an ankle injury.
Pogba has been the face of United’s global brand since returning to Old Trafford from Juventus in 2016, but this week there were renewed reports the unsettled France star is still keen to leave.
Real Madrid and Juventus are said to waiting to pounce and Fernandes’ quick adaptation to English football may make it easier for Solskjaer to consider moving on from the divisive World Cup winner.
Regardless of Pogba’s future, Fernandes will face City with a chance to strengthen the bond with fans who have already taken to chanting his name on the Stretford End.
United have beaten their neighbours twice at the Etihad Stadium this season — once in the Premier League and the other in the League Cup semi-finals.
But City still knocked them out of the League Cup after a swaggering 3-1 first-leg victory that extended their excellent recent record at Old Trafford.
Sunday’s match is a fixture that means more to fifth-placed United than second-placed City as the hosts chase a place in the Champions League.
Hoping to secure United’s first top-flight win over City on home turf since 2015, Solskjaer underlined the expectations on Fernandes’ shoulders when he urged him to improve on his display at Derby.
“He’s a winner. He doesn’t take 99 percent as good enough. He’ll probably know he must do better than this against City,” he said.