When Raphaël Adelino José Guerreiro scored the winning goal in the last minute of added time against 2014 World Cup Runners-up Argentina, not only did the Old Trafford crowd stand in attention, but so did a nation, as another young revelation emerged from A Seleção’s second Golden Generation.
A modest lad at 20-years-of age, a month shy of 21, the left-back had plied his trade in the lower echelons of French football before emerging as Portugal’s next big talent. Still a raw talent, Guerreiro plays for modest French club Lorient, and was largely unknown among Portuguese fans until that fateful night in Manchester.
Making a splash in France
Almost a complete anonymity in his father’s homeland of Portugal, Guerreiro became a revelation during his youth career at Blanc-Mesnil and the famed Clairefontaine academy before moving to local team Caen and Ligue 2 in 2008.
In his first couple of seasons at his new club, Guerreiro was a mainstay in the reserve team’s starting eleven. Eventually, he worked his way into the first team where he started every game, bar one, and was considered as the best left-back in the French 2nd tier.
After two impressive seasons in Ligue 2, Guerreiro had become the name on everyone’s lips. Rumours were swirling around that a number of big clubs were after the adolescent’s signature, but good sense prevailed and he signed for Lorient. With game-time and a platform on which Guerreiro could flourish as the main incentive, the Ligue 1 side paid €2.5 million for his services, soon establishing himself as an automatic starter.
French born and bred, but his heart bled red
Born in Blanc-Mesnil in north-western France to a Portuguese father, a benfiquista, and French mother, Guerreiro had lived in France all his life, yet, the decision he made regarding the crest he would bare over his heart was never in doubt.
“I want to make something clear; it was me who chose Portugal. It’s my choice and nobody from my family or my agent tried to influence me,” said the 20-year-old in September of last year when interviewed by Eurosport. Guerreiro has made a commitment, foregoing Les Bleus for the blood red of A Seleção das Quinas. “It’s with enormous pride that I wear the Portugal shirt, and I hope to wear it for many years.”
It did not take long however for Guerreiro’s wish to come true, called up by Rui Jorge to play for his U21 side against Sweden in March of 2013. Impressing Jorge and his coaching staff, both internationally and a club level, the youngster would go on to make seven appearances under the former Seleção full-back in helping his indomitable side qualify for the 2015 European Championship in the Czech Republic before being called up by Fernando Santos.
A return to the Algarve only the tip of the iceberg
As an adolescent before moving to Caen, Guerreiro would often go on vacation to the Algarve, and that affinity to the famed southern Portuguese state was evident in a crucial European Qualifying tie against dark horses Armenia in Faro.
With the likes of Coentrão, Antunes and Eliseu out injured, the baby-faced left-back’s name was inked onto the team sheet as he made his national debut in a baptism of fire. Guerreiro made an instant impact, making the left flank his own with intelligent runs, clever link-up play and sound defensive cover in a tight, cagey affair as the Portuguese went on to win 1-0.
Post-match, the press were in a frenzy, with the Portuguese-French immigrant still largely unknown on the peninsula prior to his exploits in Faro; but it was only a sneak preview of footballing heroics to come.
Stealing the limelight at his hero’s old stomping ground
Fernando Santo’s squad followed up the Armenia tie with a game against Argentina billed as a hotly contested Ronaldo versus Messi showdown. A tie bludgeoned by the debate of this year’s recipient of the Ballon d’Or, it similarly acted as a homecoming for the former returning to his beloved Old Trafford, but neither lived up to expectations in a frustrating match.
Guerreiro, this time, had been left on the bench as Braga full-back Tiago Gomes was given his cap, until an injury at the 51st minute robbed him of a full debut. With Argentina dominating the park, although to no real effect, Guerreiro breathed a new energy and vigour into a side bereft of ideas.
As the clock ticked beyond the ninety minutes and deep into injury time, the Old Trafford crowd awaited the end of a largely lacklustre match bereft of goals and excitement; until, you guessed it, Guerreiro came to the rescue.
A deflected Adrien shot off Éder fell rather kindly to the feet of Quaresma who, for the third time in recent games, was the difference as he delivered a pint point ball that Guerreiro was almost obliged to put into the back of the net with a diving header having rushed forward in support.
Sheer euphoria was plastered on the no. 13’s face as he embraced O Cigano. The joy of having scored for his beloved Seleção was no secret in a post-match interview. “I work every day to improve and it’s not this goal or this game that’s going to stop me doing that. I know to return to the Selecao I have to keep working very hard, starting from tomorrow.”
The quintessential modern day full back
Guerreiro is one of the paciest footballers in Ligue 1, dictating the left flank with vigour and buoyancy, as modern day managers demand a holistic game from their players, offensively and defensively. This ability to cover the pitch at a canter has allowed the youngster to provide his fair share offensive input, overlapping his winger and causing havoc up front with inch perfect crosses and incisive passing, with a 78 percent success rate for the 2013/14 season.
Guerreiro’s work ethic is not to be undermined in not neglecting his defensive duties. The young craque embodies this, with high stamina and agility, the benfiquista is able to cover ground extremely well, with the ability to change the complexion of a tie almost at will and even at its climax. This was evident in a fine individual display against French powerhouse Lyon, sending a floating ball in the 93rd minute that was duly dispatched in a dramatic draw.
Positional perceptiveness sans tackling
At only 20 years of age, Guerreiro possesses vision and positional perceptiveness beyond his years, highlighting by current coach at Lorient Christian Gourcuff: “He has all the qualities to succeed,” responded the French coach after his star left-back was named as one of the ten best young players by Le 10 Sport. “He posseses above average technical ability, intelligence and he always concentrates on the game.”
Guerreiro’s uncanny ability to read the play, one that will only bud and flower with experience, has left opposing defences reeling. French side Nice would corroborate. The young Seleção stalwart caused constant havoc on the wing, preying on his opposing right-back’s errors with speedy interceptions and ball recoveries, making him a natural ball winner, with 75 interceptions in 26 Ligue 1 Games during the 2013/14 season.
By the same token, Guerreiro’s tackling is still an area in progress. Winning 65% of his battles and a 54% rate with tackles, the full-back’s game is centred on jockeying, positional awareness and his exceptional positional awareness, rather than making a definitive stop the run of play. With the eight highest interception average in Ligue 1, 152 players in France’s top flight average more tackles per game (1.4+).
The future is now
Still largely inexperienced and wet behind the ears, Guerreiro is nowhere near the finished product. Quite the introvert in barely speaking a lick of Portuguese, as well as only recently joining the national youth set-up, the left-back is not expected to usurp the likes of Fabio Coentrão and Vitorino Antunes just yet, as both possess European pedigree and years of experience on the international stage under their belt.
Nonetheless, Guerreiro is ambitious, with his eye on setting his name in effervescence. “My father is a Benfica fan and me too, and I’d love to play for them. But my dream is to play for Real Madrid.” One would find it hard to down play such ambition as the sky is surely the limit for the Raphaël Adelino Jose Guerreiro.