When Benfica decided to break its transfer record to sign Darwin Núñez, it was a clear signal of intent from the Portuguese giants. Benfica was just coming off a disappointing season, relinquishing its title to Porto in a tight title race. The Liga Nos side took to the transfer market aggressively, spending over 100 million euros on a number of intriguing prospects to bolster its roster. Núñez headlined the summer arrivals, joining from Almeria after bursting onto the scene in Spain’s second division.
The 21-year-old emerged as one of football’s most sought-after hitmen last year, netting 16 goals in 30 appearances for Almeria. Núñez was integral to the side’s promotion challenge, leading the Spanish side to an impressive fourth-place finish. His goalscoring exploits quickly garnered interest from across the footballing world, with a number of Europe’s elite keeping tabs on him. Benfica eventually won the race for Núñez, securing the Artigas native for 25 million euros.
The Uruguayan has slotted in seamlessly since making the move, registering six goals in 13 appearances for Benfica. Núñez formed an immediate partnership with fellow summer arrival Luca Waldschmidt up front and led the side to a perfect record after five league games. The Portuguese giants currently sit just two points behind Sporting CP in first place, confirming their title credentials in the early goings of the new season.
A classic number nine by nature, Núñez thrives in and around the box, making the most of his predatory instinct. The former Penarol man initially took time to open his account on the season, failing to find the back of the net in his first five appearances. Núñez demonstrated there was far more to his game than simply goals, kicking off the year with assists in four consecutive games.
It would not be long until Núñez announced himself to the Benfica faithful. The 21-year-old bagged himself a hat-trick in his European debut, helping the Portuguese giants win a back-and-forth tilt against Lech Poznan. Núñez’s performance and hat-trick highlighted the type of striker the Uruguayan international is.
The Benfica man leveled the affair for the Portuguese giants by leaping over his defender with ease and powering home a thunderous header. Núñez would not be done there, demonstrating his excellent footwork inside the box shortly thereafter to dribble past his man and slot home expertly for the winner.
The 21-year-old headed home once more deep into stoppage time to complete his hat-trick and showed exactly why Benfica was so eager to secure his services. Jorge Jesus was all praise for his young striker following his hat-trick heroics, claiming his sale will surpass Joao Felix’s 126 million euros record price tag.
“He was Benfica's most expensive purchase, and when there is no pandemic, he will be the most expensive sale. He will be a world-class player. We got it right,” said Jesus. “We must not forget that he is a kid, he is 21 years old, there is a lot about the game that he does not know yet. He will learn with me and Benfica.”
Núñez added another two goals in Europa League action, capping off an impressive group stage campaign. Jesus’s men have since been drawn with Arsenal and will be hoping to go one further than they were able to muster last season. Benfica disappointed in European competitions under Bruno Lage, losing to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Round of 32.
Núñez may only be 21 years old, but he is ready to lead the charge for the Portuguese giants. The towering hitman has demonstrated no stage is too big for him and hit the ground running immediately after being called into the national team fold. Núñez scored a crucial equalizer for Uruguay just five minutes into his international debut, indicating La Celeste may just have another deadly forward on their hands.
Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, and Diego Forlan have led the line with great aplomb over the past decade, but as their forces begin to wane, Núñez will have more opportunities to stake a claim for a more prominent role.
The former Penarol man has since attracted interest from across Europe, with Barcelona, Manchester City, and Real Madrid reportedly keeping tabs on the 21-year-old. Núñez, however, will want to remain focused on the task at hand and help Benfica reclaim its place atop Portuguese football.