Ultimate understudy steps over his faults
Nani's maturity this season has earned him the respect of his manager, says Paul Wilson
I n his Manchester United career so far, it has been Nani's great misfortune to be cast as Cristiano Ronaldo Lite, a less prolific, not quite as talented yet even more irritating version of his more famous compatriot.
So much so that it comes as a slight surprise to be reminded that his time at Old Trafford only overlapped that of the more stellar stepover artist by a couple of seasons, and the winger more properly known as Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha only arrived in England at the stage when Ronaldo was beginning to articulate a desire to leave.
The pair have more than United in common, of course. They played together at youth level in Portugal, both came through the Sporting Lisbon ranks, and briefly lived together when Nani was new to Manchester. They operate in tandem for the national side, where Nani could be seen fully playing to type in the 4-0 friendly defeat of Spain last month, brainlessly applying an unnecessary final touch to an exquisite chip by Ronaldo that had already beaten the goalkeeper and seeing a collector's item of a goal chalked off for offside. Ronaldo was furious.
In England, too, Nani's challenge has always been to live in Ronaldo's shadow. First he had to survive comparisons with someone who was arguably the hottest property in world football at the time, then he had to try and step into his shoes. Perhaps not immediately, for Antonio Valencia was signed to provide width and penetration first, and was gradually growing into the role when his ankle fracture thrust the spotlight back on Nani.
Even then Alex Ferguson, who described him as "immature" when he first joined the club, appeared to lack faith in Nani's ability.
The United manager has often seemed disappointed with the development of a player he bought for £17m as a 20-year-old, either damning him with faint praise or highlighting his reservations through his selections. It is perhaps revealing, though, that Nani is still around after voicing his frustrations last year, the sort of speaking out of turn that led to the rapid departure of Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
If Ferguson has adopted a patient approach over a player who has only just turned 24, there have been distinct signs this season that the wait may not have been in vain. Nani not only seems to realise his responsibilities now, he has started to look capable of discharging them.
In the 7-1 rout of Blackburn last month, Nani was probably United's best player, his contribution only overshadowed by the headlines commanded by Dimitar Berbatov's five goals. Nani scored a fine goal that day and made a couple more, the story of his season in miniature.
His assists alone have earned him new respect at Old Trafford because he not only appears to have acquired unselfishness but decisiveness, the ability to select the right option then deliver.
Ferguson has noticed. "He's got better, that's the great thing," the United manager said. "He's always had pace, courage and great feet, but he's added a goal ratio to his game, which is important."
Arsene Wenger has noticed too. A couple of Nani's best displays in England have been against his team -- not that everybody in north London has been impressed. After a fractious FA Cup tie two years ago, William Gallas accused him of showboating and Gilberto Silva said he was a big-head. No shocks there, though it should also be recorded that Nani was man of the match with a goal and two assists.
Nani did more or less the same thing in the league victory at the Emirates last season. He says he enjoys playing against Arsenal because they give players a chance to show their quality -- and though Wenger can only take that as a back-handed compliment he is big enough to concede that the player is worth watching.
"I like what he is doing," the Arsenal manager says. "He has great individual ability but he has improved a lot in his team play. He is a little bit less direct than Ronaldo but technically he is a virtuoso, he has remarkable speed and he is a great crosser of the ball."
United fans baffled by that last remark should bear in mind that Wenger has seen Nani mostly against Arsenal, when he always seems to raise his game.
He has not necessarily seen all the crosses that miss their target, sometimes even miss the penalty area, at Old Trafford. Yet with two good feet, pace to burn and a propensity for scoring goals, Nani has the potential to be as deadly a supplier as David Beckham and as elusive in open play as Ryan Giggs.
While he may never eclipse Ronaldo, Nani is extraordinarily gifted by any other measure and appears to be finally understanding how to harness his talent for the benefit of the team.