x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Nani's days look numbered at Manchester United

Aggravated over lack of playing time, and frustrated by injuries, the Portuguese winger may be in search of other pastures at the end of this season, writes Andy Mitten.

Nani has had to endure an average season at Manchester United. Alex Livesey / Getty Images
Nani has had to endure an average season at Manchester United. Alex Livesey / Getty Images

Nani was understandably distraught. His red card against Real Madrid last week was controversial, but also a metaphor for his luckless season.

The Portuguese winger, 26, has started just six league games for Manchester United in this injury-hit term, but he was chosen to start in United's biggest match of the season, while players such as Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Jonny Evans and Shinji Kagawa were not.

His manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, knows that when he excels, Nani can be a game changer, even against the best sides like Madrid.

Nani can beat a man, cross and score from distance. He scored 10 and made 18 assists in 2010/11, the season his teammates voted him their Player of the Year, while the United fans who he had frustrated with his inconsistency voted him second, just one per cent of the votes behind the Mexican forward Hernandez.

Only Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic started more games in the outfield than Nani that season. Here was a man thriving in the absence of his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who was improving season on season.

Nani was the best player in a side which won the league and reached a third Uefa Champions League final in four years, but a combination of non-selection and a hamstring injury means he has not come close to those appearance figures in any of his other seasons since arriving at Old Trafford as a 19 year old in 2007.

Nani said he hoped to do even better in 2012, but it did not happen. "He's got all the tools to be the player he thinks he is apart from one - a brain," opined one United fan at the end of last season. His critics suggested he hit the ground too easily, drifted in and out of games, that his final ball was often wayward. Yet when he got it right, Nani was a world-beater, the star he wanted to be with Old Trafford's sweetest feet.

The problem was he did not get it right often enough, though he was not the first winger to suffer from this affliction.

Antonio Valencia was United's Player of the Year after Nani, but he has been mediocre this season.

If a winger hits the heights then he is adored, but beating a man, flying down the flanks and crossing in perfectly is the hardest thing to do in football.

Only one year after Nani was named Player of the Year in 2011, United were prepared to sell him to Zenit Saint Petersburg in the summer. United had offered Nani a new contract on his old terms of £80,000 (Dh436,000) a week rather than the £125,000 that he demanded during negotiations.

He initially thought that he could follow compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo's contract curve, with improved deals each time. United disagreed because his form did not justify it. Nani twice reduced those demands, but the two parties were still well apart in their figures and United began to listen to potential suitors.

The Russian club Zenit offered £25m for him in July 2012, a good profit on the £17m United paid Sporting.

If they were going to offload Nani to anyone, Zenit's offer was ideal for United. They do not want the Portuguese to run down his contract, which expires in 2014, and then leave for a lower fee.

Nani counts Zenit's Bruno Alves among his friends, but he scoffed at the idea of joining him, even though they could have paid him closer to the money he wanted from United.

The Russians would not, however, pay him the £200,000 a week his agent demanded.

Nani was also affronted to learn that United would sell him and turned off his mobile phone when his assent was needed.

Given Nani's state of mind, Zenit instead signed Hulk, the Brazilian forward, from Porto. Nani stayed at Old Trafford and has been frustrated since, telling friends he is prepared to leave, though he is more diplomatic on the record.

Ferguson wants him to stay, saying: "We need Nani. His contract isn't up for a year and a half. He offers something different from the other players. He's an incredible talent. He's got a future here. Why would I want to let him go?" Why? Because an agreement cannot be reached on a contract or the number of games played, for one.

Ferguson usually talks up his players and rarely says that they are leaving as it would drive any sale price down. He would also rather have a squad of 25 players fighting for places than 12. He wants the game-changing abilities of Nani, just as he wanted the option of Gerard Pique should other defenders get injured, of Nicky Butt in midfield and Diego Forlan in attack.

All went to Ferguson, frustrated by their lack of opportunities, and asked to leave. Ferguson told all that he did not want them to go, but sanctioned their moves.

He was once a player himself; he knows that footballers like to play football.

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