“When he arrived in the first team for the first training session he was 16 years old. And I remember, after the first or second session he had with us, going to João Moutinho and both of us were like, ‘Wow, who is that kid?’ He was really special because you could see from the beginning that he was different, he wasn’t afraid of coming at us, coming at the older guys, and dribbling past two or three players. Usually when you’re 16 you’re a little bit afraid of the big guys, but he’d go at the defenders and just ‘kill’ them. Then, after two years, he started playing more often with us, and now he’s one of the best in the world.”
As for Bernardo, author of the pass for Mbappé to open the scoring in Monaco’s 3-1 second-leg success, he left his own calling card in that away-goals triumph. Pep Guardiola, his future coach, certainly took note. “I think those two matches may have changed the course of my career because, at the end of the first game, I crossed paths with Pep in the mixed zone. I was giving a TV interview and so was he. He came up to me, saying, ‘Congratulations on the match,’ and we spoke a little bit about it. He also congratulated us for our performances in the French league and so, in a way, it was maybe the beginning of my decision to come to Manchester later.”
And just how was the challenge of adapting to Guardiola’s singular approach following his arrival in Manchester? Some players, after all, have appeared to need a whole season to settle in. “I wouldn’t say that. It took me some time to adjust to my new team-mates, a new style of playing, a new city, a new league. But his demands, when I arrived, were something I really liked a lot. It’s something I identify with: to be playing for a team where everybody fights every year to win titles and is never satisfied. I like to work with those demands every day.”
It is worth noting that when Bernardo moved to east Manchester in 2017, a month short of his 23rd birthday, this was not his first experience of big-club pressure. He did his growing up, remember, with Benfica, serving Portugal’s most popular team as a youth player, ballboy and eventually senior pro. Indeed, he rolls up the left sleeve of his dark sweater to reveal a tattoo of Benfica’s Latin motto, ‘E pluribus unum’ (Out of many, one). It is an attachment that endures. On 7 November, the day after scoring in City’s Manchester derby victory at Old Trafford, he returned to the Estádio da Luz to watch Benfica’s 6-1 victory over Braga – a moment shared with City colleagues and fellow ex-Benfiquistas Rúben Dias and João Cancelo prior to joining up with the Portugal squad.
“Benfica are a big part of my life,” he elaborates. “I grew up going to Benfica matches with my father and my friends. Besides that, I played at Benfica for 12 years – from the age of seven until 19 – so it’s almost half my life. When I left I was 19, almost 20, and it was a very difficult change because I wasn’t expecting it. But it turned out to be a good thing, to change and move to Monaco. But, speaking of Benfica, they’re an important part of my life. Not only as a supporter but also later as a player, and that helped me a lot to grow.”
“Everybody fights every year to win titles and is never satisfied. I Identify with that”
One particular reason for that growth was the influence of Fernando Chalana. A much-loved, big-moustached Benfica and Portugal winger of the 1980s, Chalana was Bernardo’s coach at a significant moment in his teens. “Chalana came into my life as my coach during a not-so-good stage of my life, when I wasn’t playing. If I’m not mistaken, I was 15 or 16. When you’re a kid and you don’t play, you start losing some of your confidence; you start not being sure that you’ll achieve what you want to achieve. To have someone like him who believed a lot in me – one of the best players in the history of Portuguese football and Benfica – helping me the way he did, was very important.”
The impact of significant coaching figures brings us back to Guardiola. Bernardo has spoken of his “honest” relationship with him. Has the Catalan actually changed the way he sees football? “Absolutely,” comes the reply. “Not only with Pep but with every coach. When I was 19 I felt I was a better player than when I was 18; when I was 20 I felt I was a better player than when I was 19.
“Here at Manchester City, every year I feel like a better player mainly because of how I understand the game, how I understand what the game needs at each stage. Sometimes the team need to speed up the game, sometimes the team need more possession. The game asks for different things and this experience and ability to understand it, especially in a team like ours, has helped me grow. And having a coach like Pep, who likes controlling the rhythm of a game and likes having possession and also likes to dominate the game, it drives us all to win a lot, year after year.
“It’s hard and good at the same time, because he’s a very demanding coach. He’s a coach who doesn’t let the players rest. He’s a coach who, at Barcelona, at Bayern and now at Manchester City, is used to winning – and winning year after year, never letting up. Even after a season when we won several titles, he’s a coach who always demands more from us, and always wants to win and win and win.
“So it’s been a very good experience, especially in terms of the level of this team’s ambition. It’s not easy as the quality in the squad is very high and the competition for places is also really high. Having a coach who’s always pushing us to the limit is, no doubt, really important.”