Bruno Fernandes has never made such important contributions in a Portugal shirt.
That may come as a surprise given the enormous talent of the Manchester United star but it has just never really happened for him on the international stage.
For a long time when Fernandes played in Italian football, he was overlooked by coach Fernando Santos, unable to get himself opportunities in a national side hardly short on world-class ability.
Bruno Fernandes is all smiles after scoring Portugal’s second goal against North Macedonia on Tuesday night to deliver them to the World Cup finals in Qatar
His Manchester United team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo teed up Fernandes to score his first goal
It was only really after Portugal’s Nations League triumph in 2019 that Fernandes got much of a look-in and became a regular starter.
And despite entering the tournament off the back of an excellent season at Old Trafford, Fernandes failed to make much impact at Euro 2020. He began the competition as a starter and finished it a sub as they exited to Belgium in the last 16.
Before his double on Tuesday night, Fernandes only had six international goals to place alongside seven assists in 41 appearances for his country. Hardly eye-catching.
He and everyone else played in Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow and that dynamic had become strained on the road to Qatar with the dominant narrative being the 37-year-old’s efforts to reach a fifth World Cup.
Aleksandar Mitrovic’s dramatic last-minute winner for Serbia consigned Portugal to the play-offs and, having not been enormously convincing against Turkey, they were no doubt relieved to see minnows North Macedonia, rather than European champions Italy, blocking their path to the finals.
Scenes such as this, with Ronaldo and Fernandes sulking or even arguing, have been common this season with Manchester United struggling for form
Fernandes and Ronaldo are United’s two leading scorers but they have struggled for chemistry
It still had the potential to be a banana skin but Portugal got the job done thanks to two fine finishes from Fernandes in either half.
The first goal was an assured strike that followed a one-two with Ronaldo, the kind of understanding that United fans have been craving for most of the season.
When Ronaldo made his fairytale Old Trafford return at the beginning of the season, there were high hopes the pair would combine effortlessly with goals and glory following close behind.
It hasn’t worked out that way – Fernandes has teed up three of Ronaldo’s 18 goals for United this season, while Ronaldo hasn’t returned the favour on any of Bruno’s nine goals.
They may be United’s two leading goalscorers this season but the chemistry between the pair in attack has been largely missing.
Fernandes and Ronaldo can’t hide their disappointment during the FA Cup loss to Middlesbrough back in February
But it was a different story on Tuesday as the pair powered Portugal to the World Cup
In fact, the defining image of a season of recurring horrors at United has been their sulky body language and anguished conversations about the side’s many failings, usually while waiting to restart a game after conceding.
Sometimes, they appear to be having a go at each other. Perhaps there has been too much stepping on toes between Ronaldo at centre forward and Fernandes in the No 10 position just a few yards behind.
Ronaldo’s compulsive need to dominate everything in attack and be at the centre of things can mean that Fernandes is pushed aside and his own creative spark extinguished.
His numbers have dropped from 28 goals and 17 assists during an outstanding 2020-21 campaign, with Ronaldo assuming penalty duties only really a minor factor.
Fernandes celebrates with Ronaldo on the star’s Old Trafford return against Newcastle
Fernandes has created 13 goals for United in all competitions but the fact only three of those were for Ronaldo – away at Young Boys and Atalanta in the Champions League and at Tottenham in the Premier League – only confirms the fact Ronaldo’s return caused Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to rip up all his pre-season plans at the expense of cohesion and continuity.
Interim boss Ralf Rangnick just hasn’t been able to galvanise United enough to salvage the season and one by one their hopes of winning a trophy have been ended.
But as they desperately try to make up ground in the top four race, and secure Champions League football for the incoming manager next season, perhaps Tuesday night will prove a turning point.
United’s interim manager Ralf Rangnick still hopes he can deliver a fourth-placed finish
United have plenty to do in order to pinch fourth position from Arsenal and make it back into the Champions League next season
MAN UNITED RUN-IN
Fixtures subject to change
Saturday Leicester City (H)
April 9 Everton (A)
April 16 Norwich City (H)
April 19 Liverpool (A)
April 23 Arsenal (A)
May 2 Brentford (H)
May 7 Brighton (A)
May 15 Chelsea (H)
May 22 Crystal Palace (A)
With their two best players assured of a World Cup appearance at the back end of the year, maybe they can relax and show their best form in the closing weeks of the season.
They proved in Porto that they can combine well going forward and now United, who really can’t afford to put a foot wrong if they’re to finish fourth, may profit.
Rangnick’s side resume against Leicester on Saturday in sixth position, four points behind Arsenal in the last Champions League spot having already played a game more.
Tottenham in fifth and West Ham in seventh are also pushing but four into one simply won’t fit. Some will have to settle for the Europa League and – quelle horreur – the Europa Conference League next season.
With Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea still to play, it’s fair to say United’s Champions League qualification hopes are fading.
They’ll need to be flawless, finding the kind of winning consistency that has eluded them all season.
But when the heat is on, the truly great players step up. Fernandes and Ronaldo did that for Portugal on Tuesday and now must do likewise for United.