LISBON (Reuters) – Benfica teenager Joao Felix is arguably the most exciting young player to have burst onto the European football scene this season yet there is already talk of where he will play next.
Practically every major club across the continent has at some point been reported as showing interest in the 19-year-old but he does not have to look far to see what can go wrong when a prodigy moves abroad too early.
Three years ago, Renato Sanches made a similar impact for Benfica but his career has stalled after an early move to Germany.
Joao Felix only made his first-team debut in August but has already scored 18 goals in 39 appearances in all competitions. He recently became the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Europa League, in the 4-2 quarter-final first leg win over Eintracht Frankfurt.
He continued his excellent season with two goals and an assist in the 6-0 demolition of Maritimo on Monday which took Benfica back to the top of the Primeira Liga, on goal difference from Porto.
Usually playing behind the main striker, he possesses an excellent first touch, likes to run at defenders and has an eye for goal.
Although he has a contract until June 2023, it has a 120 million euro ($134.5 million) release clause and, according to the rumour mill, there are plenty of clubs willing to pay that with the name of Juventus popping up more than most.
But is it too soon for a move to a bigger club where he would have to adapt to a new country and battle for a place in the team?
Sanches appeared to have the world at his feet after he capped an impressive debut season at Benfica by helping Portugal win Euro 2016.
But all that changed when he moved to Bayern Munich, aged 18. He struggled to break into a team brimming with world class talent, starting only six league games and playing a full 90 minutes only once.
It got worse the following season when he was loaned to Swansea City where his confidence drained away and he suffered an injury.
He returned to Bayern this season and, although he started brightly, has once again found himself a bit-part player in the last two months. He has also lost his place in the Portugal team.
Benfica coach Bruno Lage believes that the Joao Felix’s talent should be allowed to grow “naturally” and has already railed against the media for criticising his performances when he does not score.
“Joao is a fantastic lad and he has a lot to learn, technically and tactically,” said Lage. “He has to learn how to occupy space and read the game and he has to learn, quickly, that when he is merely ‘normal’, he will be criticised.
“The day he doesn’t score a hat-trick he gets criticised.”
On Tuesday, Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira suggested that the club would try to hold onto the player.
“Benfica will do everything we can so that nobody leaves,” he told the Correo da Manha newspaper. “We want to consolidate our project and we will not let go of this principle.”
Lage suggested that Benfica was the ideal environment for Joao Felix to develop.
“We don’t put any pressure on him… we want him to improve naturally,” said Lage. “We all believe he can have a great career and, on the contrary to some people, I believe he can stay among us for many more years.”
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Christian Radnedge)