x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Wild card Nani now the ace in the pack

The Portuguese winger is one of the first names on Sir Alex Ferguson's team sheet after a standout 2010.

Nani expresses himself after the cheeky goal he slipped in past the Spurs keeper.
Nani expresses himself after the cheeky goal he slipped in past the Spurs keeper.

The journey from show pony to thoroughbred is one that few make. Gratuitous trickery and relentless efficiency are not natural bedfellows. And yet there are indications at Manchester United that, for the second time in five years, a Portuguese winger as capable of frustrating as delighting is melding consistency with his natural ability.

For Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo is both inspiration and mentor.

"When we are with the national team, he says: 'You are in good form, keep doing it because you are important for Portugal'.

"We are big friends. He can hear me out and listen, so that's OK," said Nani, 24.

A more conventional counsellor is that perennial advocate of youth, Sir Alex Ferguson.

"He had a meeting with all the young players and now we are getting more opportunities," Nani said.

"He is trying to show us how it is important to get better. Every player on the pitch needs to think he can be the best in the world. He said we are here because, effectively, we are the best."

Rewind to the start of 2010 and the consensus was that Ferguson had tired of Nani and that an exit beckoned. Instead, this has been a breakthrough year.

When he was granted an unexpected recall and excelled at Arsenal in January, Nani had played in only one of United's previous 14 matches, even though the club was in the midst of an injury crisis.

Now the wild card has become the ace in the pack. With Antonio Valencia a long-term absentee, Ryan Giggs both ageing and injured and Ji-sung Park below par, Nani is both the first winger on the team sheet and the greatest guarantor of invention.

"I think my performance in the team has been very good," Nani said. "They are happy with me but I want to do more than I am doing at the moment."

His current contributions are impressive enough. Each of his first four goals this season, scored against West Ham United, Bolton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion and Bursaspor, were laced with brilliance, whether it be fearsome long-range shooting, sharp skill or telepathic understanding with colleagues.

Spectacular goals are a Nani trademark, dating back to August 2007, when he opened his United account with a memorable strike against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford.

"I practice every day but it is something special I have," Nani said. "Since I arrived here at this club my first goal was from long distance and every goal I have scored since seems to have been that way as well." The next aim is to produce the statistics to accompany the unquestioned style. He explained: "I want to score more goals and get more assists." Spoken just like Ronaldo. Nani was pivotal again at Old Trafford yesterday in the 2-0 victory against Tottenham Hotspur, putting in the type of match-winning display that would have United fans drawing inevitable comparisons with Ronaldo.

Within the first three minutes of the game, Nani had exhibited his full repertoire - a mazy dribble, a few rolls on the floor and then a rasping shot at goal. He soon turned architect.

With half an hour gone, it was his inviting centre that saw Nemanja Vidic open the scoring. The pair are starting to form quite a partnership at set-pieces; it was Nani's corner that the Serbian headed into the path of Javier Hernandez on Sunday.

The Portuguese winger is starting to put substance above style and his priceless ability to keep the ball and beat defenders doubles up as a useful release valve and weapon for a United side who are playing much more on the counterattack this season.

Nani revels in being the hub of United's creativity, their main attraction, and he displayed a Machiavellian streak yesterday when he scored United's second amid much controversy. All that advice from Ronaldo must be paying off.



The loyalty of Nobby Stiles, a18