He may not have generated quite as many headlines as the record-chasing Robert Lewandowski or Golden Boy Erling Haaland, but Andre Silva has quietly emerged as one of the best strikers in the Bundesliga, with his goals powering Eintracht Frankfurt's charge for a long-awaited return to the UEFA Champions League.
Europe's leading club competition was still in its infancy when Frankfurt last took part, all the way back in 1959/60. At that time, Real Madrid were the undisputed kings of the continent, having won the first four editions of the new European Cup. The Spanish side showed no mercy as they swept Die Adler aside in the Glasgow final to make it five in a row, with star strike duo Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano combining for all seven (!) goals. Little did Eintracht suspect they wouldn't be back for at least 60 years.
The interminable wait may soon be over, though. Frankfurt currently sit fourth in the Bundesliga with a seven-point lead over fifth-placed Borussia Dortmund, in part thanks to Silva's late winner against BVB on Matchday 27. They have six more games to play, and four of their remaining opponents are in the bottom half of the table: Augsburg, Mainz, Schalke and Freiburg.
If the Eagles find themselves so tantalisingly perched on the verge of Champions League qualification, then Silva deserves plenty of the credit. The Portugal forward has been in sensational goalscoring form in 2020/21, netting 23 times in 26 outings. Second behind Lewandowski (35) in the Bundesliga scoring charts, and just ahead of Haaland (21), he has accounted for 39 per cent of Frankfurt's goals this term, as well as providing four assists.
"It's an amazing feeling to score goals," the 25-year-old once explained to bundesliga.com. "I started playing football because I wanted to feel that type of fire inside me. I want to do my best all the time, for myself and for the people supporting us. It makes my day when that happens, that's what I play for."
Silva has been on the Frankfurt books since September 2019, when he joined on a season-long loan from AC Milan. He quickly made a name for himself at the Commerzbank-Arena, netting in three of his first four outings against Dortmund, Union Berlin and Werder Bremen. He then struck a rich vein of form after the coronavirus-enforced hiatus, notching eight goals in 10 games to help Adi Hütter's side finish comfortably in mid-table. That blistering run-in convinced the club's top brass to sign him on a permanent deal.
"Over the last few months, we've seen what Andre is capable of," enthused Fredi Bobic, Frankfurt's sporting CEO, when Silva inked a new contract through to June 2023. "It was no accident that he was the second-best striker in the Bundesliga [behind Lewandowski] after the restart. He's a young and flexible attacker, and he's still got potential to improve. We're confident we can take him to another level here in Frankfurt."
Bobic's confidence has turned out to be very well-placed. Silva began 2020/21 in exactly the same way as 2019/20, with three goals in four games. Yet while he went off the boil during his first season in Germany – suffering an injury, and then spending a handful of games on the bench – he has remained red hot throughout the current campaign, never going more than two matches without finding the back of the net.
There have also been some headline performances. When Frankfurt found themselves 2-0 down at Union in late November, Silva netted twice before half-time to get them level in a barnstorming game that finished 3-3. Lightning struck twice a few weeks later against Borussia Mönchengladbach, when Silva notched another brace in another 3-3 draw.
"My aim for the coming season is to score goals," Silva had announced on the Frankfurt website ahead of Matchday 1, before doing exactly that in a 1-1 draw against Arminia Bielefeld. "Every day, I want to be better than the day before. But obviously the most important thing is that Eintracht win."
Despite Silva's consistency in the final third, positive results were hard to come by in the early part of the campaign. Frankfurt only won two of their first 12 matches – drawing eight! – and went winless for two months between mid-October and mid-December. But they finally found their groove just before Christmas, embarking on an extraordinary run of nine wins and a draw in 10 outings. That spurred their star striker to even greater heights; in January and February, he put away 10 goals in the space of just eight matches.
His 50th Bundesliga outing, away to Dortmund on Matchday 27, could end up going down as the most significant to date. It was billed as the battle of the 21-goal top scorers: Haaland vs. Silva. And it was the Portugal international who came out on top, delivering a knockout blow by heading in an 87th-minute winner. It was the first time this season he had netted against another member of the top five, and gave Frankfurt that seven-point cushion over BVB and Bayer Leverkusen in the race for the Champions League.
Watch: Silva came up with the goods at the death against Dortmund
With 23 goals, Silva is now enjoying the most prolific league season of his career. He hit 16 in 32 Portuguese Primeira Liga outings for boyhood club Porto in 2016/17, which prompted his big-money move to Milan. However, he struggled to adapt to Italy both on and off the pitch, only netting twice in 24 Serie A appearances. After a more successful spell on loan at Sevilla in 2018/19, he arrived in Frankfurt and has never looked back. He could even set a new single-season scoring record for the club if he overhauls Bernd Hölzenbein's 26 goals from 1976/77.
"I had one year in Milan and it wasn't the best for me," Silva explained. "Mentally, it wasn't a good year. The most important thing is your mind, and that was the key to those moments. When things aren't going well for me, I try to do something new, to make a change. I think the secret was to find myself again, and staying in Germany was the best decision. Now I'm feeling right again, putting in my best performances."
Silva's polished club form should also guarantee him a spot in the Portugal squad at this summer's UEFA Euro, where he will be part of a formidable attacking arsenal featuring Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota, Pedro Neto, Joao Felix and his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal's favourite sporting son previously touted Silva as his long-term successor.
"When I retire, Portugal will be in good hands because they've already found a great striker: Andre Silva," Ronaldo said in the summer of 2017. "He's doing a phenomenal job, and not just thanks to his goals."
Silva already has an impressive return of 16 goals in 38 games for Portugal, but before he thinks about helping the Selecao to defend their continental crown, he wants to secure Frankfurt a place at European football's top table. They took another big step towards a top-four finish with victory over fellow Champions League hopefuls Wolfsburg on Matchday 28, Silva scoring one and setting up another in a 4-2 win. Since going down 2-1 to the Wolves in December's reverse fixture, Die Adler have lost just once in 17 league games.
"A seven-point advantage over fifth place is good for us, but there are seven games to go, so it's still not enough," Silva conceded. "We need to maintain our focus and keep up the good performances."
Silva hasn't done it all single-handedly in attack this season – Daichi Kamada, Filip Kostic, Amin Younes and Luka Jovic have more than played their part, guiding their team to a brilliant victory over Bayern Munich in one of the two games Silva missed. But there's no denying that Frankfurt are a more fearsome prospect with their Silva Surfer on the pitch, and he looks set to guide them back to the brightest lights in the footballing galaxy.