Man United may need to sign a striker this summer, with doubts over the futures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani, and one player stood out on their scouting mission to Lisbon
Portugal is not only one of the hotspots for identifying potential stars for the future, it’s also where Manchester United first discovered Cristiano Ronaldo.
And after it was reported by The Express that the club’s scouts were in attendance to watch Liverpool ’s Champions League tie against Benfica on Tuesday, Darwin Nunez may be next in line to follow in Ronaldo’s footsteps.
The striker would have been aware that clubs from around Europe were watching him last night after scoring 21 goals in 23 league appearances this season.
Nunez, who scored the header against Ajax that put Benfica into the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2012, bagged a crucial goal for his side in their 3-1 defeat to the Reds. Facing Liverpool, one of the best teams in Europe, provided a different challenge. Playing as a lone striker against Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate is one of the toughest physical battles an attacker can face.
In Van Dijk, you have arguably the best one-on-one defender in the world, while Konate possesses great pace and incredible strength at the back.
But it didn’t take long for those observing at the Estadio da Luz to take notice of Nunez, who has been tipped to become of Europe’s most lethal marksmen.
In the first half, the towering striker was everywhere, making runs into the channels and battling for aerial duels with defenders. He got his reward for his endless endeavour on 48 minutes when Konate misjudged Rafa Silva’s cross and it fell kindly to his feet.
Still, Nunez was half-expecting the ball to come his way, took a neat touch out of his feet and coolly slotted past Alisson Becker to send the home crowd into pandemonium. It was a composed finish from a striker with a clear knack for scoring goals.
And in the second half, he consistently timed his runs to perfection to beat the offside trap, pulling Konate deep and then leaving him in his wake, giving Liverpool a cause for concern as they battled to hold onto their lead.
Eventually, Benfica’s missed chances would come back to haunt them when Luis Diaz sealed the win two minutes from time.
But the impression left by Nunez will not be forgotten any time soon ahead of the summer transfer window. Former Liverpool striker Peter Crouch hailed his display and Michael Owen, working as a pundit for BT Sport, was impressed by what he saw from Nunez.
”He’s a great shape for starters. Nowadays, if you’re going to lead the line on your own you’ve got to have a real presence and he’s got that,” Owen told BT Sport. “He’s got size, he’s good in the air and he’s quick as well.
He’s deceptively quick. Only 22 years old. You think of how many decent strikers Uruguay have had in the past, and this lad looks like the next on the conveyor belt.”
United look set to lose Edinson Cavani this summer on a free transfer, with the 34-year-old used sparingly under Ralf Rangnick, while questions continue to surface about Ronaldo’s future at Old Trafford beyond this season.
Ronaldo has scored 18 goals in all competitions this season but appears to be declining after turning 37 in February. If the Red Devils are searching for a fresh, young striker to lead the line for the long-term, Nunez has all the attributes he needs to succeed.
The 22-year-old made a club-record £21million move to Benfica from Almeria in September 2020, showing just how highly they rated him.
Two years on, his value has likely tripled and the Portuguese giants — as shown with their recent sales of Joao Felix and Ruben Dias — will fight to keep hold of their £70m-rated prized asset.
But the lure of moving to the Premier League and playing a major role in the revival of one of the biggest clubs in the world may prove too tempting for Nunez to turn down.
His compatriot Cavani, who scored 17 goals in his first season at the club, would likely recommend a move to Man United if the opportunity were to arise.
With reported interest from Arsenal, Newcastle, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, United may need to move fast in order to secure his signature.
Inevitable comparisons will be made to the risk involved after Diego Forlan’s struggles when he joined the club — but Nunez’s fine display against Liverpool may be enough to convince the United chiefs he is worth taking a risk on.