Ruben Neves has recently been linked with a number of European football's biggest clubs, and the FC Porto midfielder will get a chance to impress one of his potential suitors at close quarters when his side host Chelsea at the Dragao on Tuesday.
Neves grew up as a Porto supporter in the town of Mezelos, south of Porto, and joined the club's academy at the age of eight. He made an excellent impression on his way through the ranks, with his maturity and leadership skills evident from an early age. After a season in the under-17s, he was called up to the first-team squad by new coach Julen Lopetegui ahead of the start of last season, thus bypassing both the U19s and the B team.
At the age of 17, he impressed sufficiently in training to be named in the starting XI for Porto's opening match of the league season at home to Maritimo. Not only did the young midfielder take home the man-of-the-match award with an assured performance in a 2-0 victory, but he also scored the opening goal to become Porto's youngest ever league goal scorer. He then followed that with a pair of good displays in their Champions League qualifier against Lille.
His performances started to attract the attention of other clubs, with Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Liverpool among those reported to be scouting him. In October 2014, Porto tied Neves down to a new contract, which featured a release clause of €40 million. The midfielder was not a regular starter during the campaign but the fact he was entrusted with starts away to both Benfica and Sporting speaks volumes for the esteem in which he is held.
Neves was part of Portugal's squad for the European U21 Championship in the summer but only saw five minutes of action as a late substitute against England. He had previously represented his country at U17 level, which is where he first caught Lopetegui's eye. He remains with the U21s for now but Fernando Santos is keeping close tabs on his progress and a call-up to the senior national team will surely follow soon.
Neves is a classy defensive midfielder with an excellent passing range and the necessary maturity and composure to consistently make good decisions in possession. He reads play well and positions himself adeptly to intercept or otherwise break up opposition attacks. His team-mate Cristian Tello has compared him to Barcelona's Sergio Busquets, but he also has the necessary skillset to step forward and contribute further up the pitch.
- extensive passing range
- intelligent positioning
- assured under pressure
- marking specific opponents
- shot selection
Tackling: His astute positioning means that he picks up possession more often from interceptions than he does from winning the ball in the tackle. Relatively strong and competitive when he is required to make a challenge, he is willing to commit fouls when necessary in order to break up potentially dangerous attacks.
Marking: Currently looks more adept at protecting space than he does in keeping close tabs on a direct opponent. For example, Nani was able to drift off his shoulder to create danger in the first half of Porto's 1-1 draw with Sporting last September. Something to be worked on.
Heading: Sufficiently tall and solidly built to compete in the air from long balls forward, but it's not something he has been called upon to do a great deal of in his short career to date. Indeed, he wasn't involved a single aerial duel during his nine appearances in the Champions League last season.
Close control: Possesses a good first touch and sufficient technical ability to manipulate the ball away from incoming challenges in tight areas. Fairly comfortable receiving the ball onto his weaker left foot and uses his body well to shield the ball when pressured.
Passing: Has an excellent passing range, which includes the ability to provide swift and accurate diagonals out to the flanks. Uses the ball efficiently and shows a good understanding of when to move it on first time and when to take a touch in order to open up a different angle. Very assured with the ball at his feet; doesn't panic when put under pressure.
Positioning: Alert to danger and consistently positions himself well to make interceptions or otherwise divert attempted passes away from their intended targets. Picks and chooses his moments to step forward and contest the ball, while he also communicates well with those around him.
Crossing: Doesn't really get forward into positions from which to supply crosses into the area and he attempted just one in his nine Champions League appearances last season.
Finishing: His debut goal against Maritimo remains his only goal for the Porto first-team. Strikes the ball very cleanly but does have a habit of taking on overly ambitious long-range efforts and doesn't really get forward often enough to be a regular goal threat at this stage of his career.
What The Experts Say
FC Porto U17 coach, Jose Guilherme: "His success does not surprise anyone who knows him and has worked with him. He is a leader on and off the field and has the profile of a true Porto player."
Portuguese football expert Vasco Mota Pereira: "Neves has the necessary range to play as a holder midfielder or further up the pitch. His vision and passing skills certainly impress, but it is his positioning and excellent reading of the game that show we are in the presence of a tremendous player in the making."
When Neves took to the pitch away to Lille last August, he beat Cristiano Ronaldo's record to become the youngest ever Portuguese player to take part in a Champions League match at 17 years, five months and eight days. He has since become the youngest to play 10 matches in European competition.
Neves is still very young, he is still fine-tuning his game and there are occasions when he is unable to impose himself to the degree he would wish. However, he has taken advantage of the first-team opportunities that have come his way and in turn established himself as one of the most promising young midfielders in world football.
The 18-year-old is a highly focused individual -- he lists "hard work" and "dedication" as two of the secrets to his success -- and it is unlikely that he will allow rumours of interest from the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid to go to his head. He is a Porto supporter and will know that the club is the best place to continue his development.
This week his thoughts will be concentrated on the visit of Chelsea and the potentially key role he could play as one of those most responsible for initiating Porto's transition from defence into attack. It is an ideal chance for Neves to show that he has what it takes to compete at this level, and his potential suitors will be keeping a close eye on how he performs.