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Pedro Neto exclusive: Wolves star on ambition to be the world's best
In a series of exclusive interviews with Sky Sports, Pedro Neto discusses the challenges faced in his short career, while coaches past and present explain his potential. Watch Chelsea vs Wolves from 3pm on Sunday live on Sky Sports Football; kick-off 4pm
Last Updated: 25/07/20 10:12pm
There is no doubt who has been Wolves' signing of the season. There was excitement initially about the acquisition of Italy international striker Patrick Cutrone and curiosity about the potential of Real Madrid defender Jesus Vallejo. Neither lasted long.
Pedro Neto, however, has survived and thrived, making a much bigger impact than many had anticipated following his arrival from Lazio last summer. Even the man himself agrees.
"I think nobody at the beginning knew what I could do," Neto tells Sky Sports. "But I proved to the fans and to the people who watch our games that I can do very good things."
Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden are the only two players younger than Neto to outscore him in the Premier League this season. He has made eight starts in the competition with a further 20 appearances coming from the bench. He might not start against Chelsea on Sunday, but it would be a surprise if Nuno Espirito Santo does not turn to him at some point.
"I improved a lot this year. I had some minutes. It has been a very good season."
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Wolves fans could be forgiven for not knowing what to expect. The fee was significant but they were buying mere potential. Neto had not even started a game for Braga when Lazio bought him aged just 17. He had since spent two seasons on the bench in Italy.
It seemed optimistic to expect too much. And yet, Lazio had spotted something.
Speaking to Jose Carvalho Araujo, one of Neto's youth coaches at Braga, he describes perfectly the player many at Wolves will now recognise from his Premier League cameos.
"He was remarkable," Araujo tells Sky Sports. "The speed with and without the ball was an amazing thing that he had." This was a precocious talent, one who captained Braga's U15 team while just 13 years old. "He was clearly the star of the team."
On the face of it, the subsequent move to Lazio - "one of our biggest deals," says Araujo - came too soon. Neto had hoped for a chance in Serie A. It was not forthcoming.
That is the player Nuno inherited. One still waiting to start a game.
"If you look back and see the way that his career has been developing, you can say that he had an experience in Italy that was not the best one for him," Nuno tells Sky Sports.
"He has been through some hard moments at his previous club. At the same time, I am positive that this moment in his life taught him something. This can make a player mature."
Neto had to wait 18 months for his Serie A bow. One minute against Juventus. There were six of them against Empoli, then 24 when already four goals up on Parma. His final appearance for the club came with a 12-minute run-out in the Stadio Olimpico against Atalanta.
Neto himself acknowledges that it was a challenge.
"It was two years and I only played four games," he says. "It was a different game in a different country and with different tactics. It was very difficult, you know."
Perhaps surprisingly, Neto resists the notion that it was mentally tough.
"It was easy because the people who came with me helped me a lot," he adds.
"I still improved in Italy. I learned a lot.
"Making the move at a young age was no problem for me. I was 17 and from Portugal but I was there to do what I love the most and that is play football. For players to be able to show what they can do and show their value, they have to play, no?
"I needed minutes. When you get minutes, you get more confident. You always have to be confident. But when you have more minutes, you have more chances and then you have more confidence."
Confidence does not seem to be something that Neto lacks.
There were a few raised eyebrows earlier this season when he declared that his ambition was to become the best player in the world. Not your average quotes from a player who was yet to start the first league game of his career at the time.
But supporters soon had a glimpse of his capabilities and he has quickly become a fan favourite - a cult hero even. "I miss playing in front of them the most," he says. "Their support has been unbelievable."
There have been plenty of highlights, even if goals against Liverpool and Manchester United were taken from him after VAR ruled them out for offences by others in the build-up.
He names his goal against Southampton that sparked a comeback from two goals down to win as his favourite moment, but he has come so close to adding many more.
At Tottenham, he danced away from no fewer than four opponents to fashion an opening for Raul Jimenez late on. At home to Bournemouth recently, there was another wonderful solo run where he could not quite apply the finishing touch.
There is a sense that he is on the cusp of something special, that not much needs to change for Neto to deliver the spectacular - a point hammered home by his vicious volleyed effort against West Ham last month.
"That was a good goal," he says.
"I am looking forward to scoring many more."
There is the hint of a smile on Nuno's face that suggests he is revealing only half the story when asked about Neto's belief in himself.
"He is a confident boy," he says.
When Jimenez was asked to name the player who would be a nightmare to be stuck in isolation with, he named the youngest and the loudest. Speaking to Jonny Otto recently, he confirmed that Neto never stops talking.
Again, this tallies with the boy Araujo remembers.
"Nothing fazed him," he recalls. "He has an amazing will to succeed. That makes him different. He is very confident. Of course, you have to have the ability, the intensity, the speed, the decision-making, but there are other kids in our academy who have those things. Maybe they lack that mentality. Pedro has shown that at every moment."
Even so, it is one thing to be the standout star at a provincial academy in Portugal. Quite another to swagger into a Premier League dressing room with such obvious self-belief.
A dressing room, of course, that includes European champions such as Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho. The latter made his international debut when Neto was five years old.
But perhaps that is the point - the key difference between Lazio and Wolves.
"The Portuguese guys that we have here - the staff and the players - have helped me a lot," says Neto. "Experienced players like Joao and Rui, they have been very good for me. They have helped me to improve my game and to learn things from them.
"The coach knows our culture too. But the English guys have also been comfortable with me, they have given me all the confidence to do what I want, be myself and play my game."
But does he talk too much?
"It is true," he admits.
"It is the way that I am, you know. I like to be good company, a good team-mate. I am very happy here and I stay with my team-mates until the end."
These are the still early days in his development, of course. It is not yet clear what is his best position. He has the pace to play on the left wing, beating opponents on the outside, but he has shown a real goal threat cutting inside onto his favoured left foot from the right flank.
Nuno is open to using him as a striker too. "He has good knowledge of the game and he is versatile enough to play in all the positions across the front three," says the Wolves boss.
That reflects the physical work that Neto has put in. Predictably, his idol is Cristiano Ronaldo. A gym has been installed at his home in Wolverhampton.
"One of the things that I have improved a lot here is how to use my body strength," he says. "I have improved a lot tactically too. I think those two factors have been very important.
"I will play where the manager wants because the only thing that I want is to play. I feel confident on the wing and in the middle. I only want to enjoy my game."
For now, much of the focus at Wolves is on their top scorer Jimenez, while the chief source of excitement comes in the form of the phenomenon that is Adama Traore.
But while some might fear the loss of the big names at Molineux, there is a feeling in some quarters that perhaps the team's next superstar is already within the group.
"I think he is growing fast," says Jonny when asked about his young team-mate's vast potential. "He is really developing. He has a long way to go still and a lot more to give."
Imitating Ronaldo might be impossible. For Neto, the only option is to try.
"If I do not approach it this way, I do not have the motivation to play football. I want to be the best so I work every day to do it. I will continue to work every day to be the best."
That is half the battle. It is why Nuno has such high hopes for him.
"This is a big step in the growing process of a player, knowing that every day is important," adds Nuno. "He is mature enough to understand that to compete at the highest level - the Premier League - there cannot be days off.
"When Pedro joined us, it was clear to him and to everybody that there was a window of opportunity for him to really grow as a player. He has opened that window."