Three months ago and frustrated by his lack of first-team chances, Nani described Sir Alex Ferguson as a "very complicated man, who can go from complimenting you, to just plain trashing you in a matter of minutes". It was the sort of outburst that might have signalled the end of his Manchester United career. But Ferguson's psyche and man-management skills are unique and his handling of Nani showed just why he is the most successful coach in English football.
In a game the Scottish manager defined as the biggest of the season, he surprisingly called on the winger to start yesterday and Nani was inspirational in a crushing victory at the home of their title rivals. The skill to create the crucial first goal in the 33rd minute was sublime. Surrounded by Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri on the right touchline, he flicked the ball brilliantly between them to find space, swept past Denilson and swung over a teasing cross.
Aware that United players were lurking, Manuel Almunia stretched and could only palm the ball into his own net. The record books might credit the Arsenal keeper, but this goal was all about Nani. On that evidence, he merits every comparison with the former Old Trafford hero Cristiano Ronaldo - comparisons which, at times in his United career, have seemed way off the mark. Since his arrival at United in 2007, Nani has struggled to fulfil the potential that Ferguson felt was enough to emulate his compatriot, who has now become the world's costliest player at Real Madrid.
"I think that was my best game for the club. I played well, scored one goal and an assist. I think it was fantastic performance and I am happy to help my team to win," Nani told Sky Sports afterwards. Ferguson backed up his winger's assessment of his performance, adding: "The boy has come back. He had an injury, came back fresh and the last three games he has been first class. The reason? Maturity. He's a shy boy. This was an example of that maturity."
Nani may never be as good as Ronaldo. He appears to lack the power, consistency and perhaps the mental toughness. But he has the same pace and unpredictably to unsettle the best defenders and be a real asset. Gael Clichy was made to look distinctly second-rate as Arsenal were humbled at the Emirates Stadium, just like they were by the leaders Chelsea back in November. Nani set up United's second too for Wayne Rooney in the 37th minute. It was a flowing counter-attack for which Arsenal are famed themselves.
Ji-Sung Park cleared from the edge of his own box to Rooney, who spotted Nani's break. With Arsenal's centre-back William Gallas stranded upfield, the Portuguese sped away down the right and a determined Rooney kept pace to collect the return pass and finish coolly with his first touch into the corner. It was his 100th career league goal and, on current form with six in three games, there are many, many more to come. Ferguson added: "Rooney - unbelievable. They just couldn't handle him."
Despite having as much possession, Arsenal lacked the same composure at the other end. Before United took command, Andrey Arshavin was too blinkered within sight of goal and wasteful with teammates in support. His best chance came following a strong run against Wes Brown that ended with a curled effort wide. A similar outcome followed with another shot just before the break after being set up by Tomas Rosicky. Edwin van der Sar was hardly tested in the United goal.
Arsenal, with Cesc Fabregas subdued, also lacked defensive direction. When Gallas made another unsuccessful charge up the pitch, the ball broke United's way and Park was somehow allowed to run unchallenged in the 52nd minute before slipping the ball past Almunia. It was his first goal since scoring in United's Champions League semi final second leg win at Arsenal in May. This one finished 3-1 too when late pressure from Arsene Wenger's side was rewarded with a consolation 10 minutes from time.
Thomas Vermaelen - who played despite fears of a broken leg in the midweek draw at Aston Villa - crashed a shot goalwards and a touch from Jonny Evans took it past Van der Sar. United could have embarrassed Arsenal further, though, before the end when Rooney drove a low shot wide. But the win was more than enough and the champions are now ominously one point behind Chelsea. "We were poor defensively and offensively and when that happens you cannot win a big game like this," lamented Wenger, whose team travel to Chelsea next week. "We gave them too much room and we were punished. On top of that, we made individual errors. It's a massive disappointment, but we have to stick together and recover."