If Bayern Munich are wading through heavy winter mud as their nine-point deficit on pacesetters Borussia Dortmund would have you believe, Renato Sanches is the V8-powered traction engine to pull the defending champions out of the mire.
The 21-year-old has already negotiated the mother of all hairpin bends in 2018/19, dropping the deer-in-the-headlights performances that plagued his first stint with Bayern and subsequent spell in the English Premier League with Swansea City in favour of the super-charged midfield bulldozer act that powered Portugal over the finish line at UEFA Euro 2016.
Watch: Renato Sanches "happiest" when playing football
Sanches Mark II
Steering a clear upward trajectory, Sanches has started six of his 13 appearances in all competitions so far this season. He scored his first Bayern goal against former club Benfica in the UEFA Champions League groups in September, and registered a pair of assists in the DFB Cup second-round triumph over minnows Rödinghausen. His pass completion has peaked at 94 per cent, while he typically ploughs a turf-churning six miles per game.
Even in matches where Bayern have come off second best such as the 3-3 home draw with relegation-threatened Fortuna Düsseldorf on Bundesliga Matchday 12, 'El Bulo' has crossed the line with his reassembled reputation intact.
"It’s going really well for me this season," Sanches said. "I’m really feeling the support of everyone at the club. Of course, I’d like to play more. We have many internationals in our ranks and the coach must rotate, but I’m getting my game time."
We keep fighting for better results ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/fXIdmvLmqt— renatosanches (@renatosanches35) November 3, 2018
Premier League oil slick
That’s more than Sanches could have said two years ago. The ex-Benfica academy product enjoyed the ride of a lifetime en route to Munich, arriving in the Bavarian capital with a Euro 2016 winner’s medal and Best Young Player trophy in the trunk. Six-hundred-and-fifteen underwhelming minutes down the track, and the career of the biggest Portuguese talent since Cristiano Ronaldo had effectively stalled.
Bayern shipped their Iberian import out to Swansea in an attempt to unclog the proverbial fuel injectors, but the loan misfired. Sanches played just 12 times between 10 September 2017 and 2 January 2018 without even mustering a shot on target – let alone scoring or creating a goal. In the words of Paul Clement - the former Bayern assistant who engineered the youngster’s move to the Premier League: "He was far more damaged than I thought."
Sanches goes full circle
The road to recovery began back in Bayern, where new coach Niko Kovac was only too happy to project-manage the refit. Feeling the love, Sanches sparked back to life, scoring a stunning free-kick in a pre-season fixture with Paris-Saint Germain. He made a late cameo in the Bundesliga Matchday 4 win over Schalke, before scoring on his first start for Bayern in over 16 months, against Benfica.
"Bayern now have the Sanches that they wanted," enthused Bayern legend Lothar Matthäus after witnessing the midfield dynamo earn a standing ovation for his driving run and forceful finish in the 2-0 win at the Estadio da Luz. "The commitment, dynamism, speed, participation, steadiness, he could have fallen twice en route to goal. But he wanted to get the goal he needed - he prevailed and received his reward. It reminded me of me. He can be a really important player for Bayern."
The new Lothar Matthäus?
With hot-wheeling six Leon Goretzka, Javi Martinez, Thomas Müller, James Rodriguez, Thiago and Corentin Tolisso for competition, Sanches’ position on the starting grid is by no means set in stone, but he makes a compelling case for regular inclusion. His torque energy is unrivalled in the Bayern engine room, and his confidence levels and decision-making are finally catching up.
"Renato has an exceptionally good technique, very good speed and a great physique," said Kovac. "It's true that people fly off him left and right - just like they used to do with Lothar Matthäus. I said he was excellent in preseason and it wouldn't be long before he plays. These are the kind of stories that football writes. He’s in great shape, and I’m delighted for him."
Fast, fit and furious - who better to shift the record champions into top gear than the footballing equivalent of a Hellcat Rhino XT…?