Club Focus – Manchester United – Nani the scapegoat as United let late lead slip at Fulham

Sir Alex Ferguson sportingly admitted that Fulham were worth their point but he will have been severely disappointed at the manner in which his own side blew their chance of victory at Craven Cottage on Sunday.

Having enjoyed a stroke of luck when Brede Hangeland inadvertently put through his own net just moments earlier to gift the visitors a late lead, Manchester United were awarded an extremely soft penalty which would have put the game to bed. Nani stepped up confidently to take it but saw his effort pushed away by home goalkeeper David Stockdale. It did not take long for Fulham to take full advantage of their reprieve, Hangeland this time far more aware of events as he headed home from a corner. That the award of the penalty for an unavoidable incident of ball-to-hand by Damien Duff was excessively harsh will not ease the disappointment for Ferguson. Where some may see justice served in Nani’s spotkick being repelled by Stockdale, the United boss will only see a great chance to wrap up a hard-fought victory spurned.

Whilst Ferguson remained charitable towards his opponents, he appeared less than impressed with his Portuguese winger. The Scot has questioned why Nani was taking the penalty in the first place, with Ryan Giggs present on the pitch. The boss cited the victory over Tottenham late last season as his precedent, pointing out that Giggs successfully struck home two spot kicks in that match despite Nani being around to take them. Seemingly, Ferguson was expecting a repeat performance on this occasion, and seeing Nani usurp his more senior colleague on penalty duties will have gone down like a lead balloon once the opportunity had been wasted. Whilst the manager is perfectly entitled to be frustrated at his player missing a glorious opportunity to seal the points, particularly one that came back to haunt United, it is interesting to note that he would see Giggs as an automatic candidate for spot kick duties.

In all his time at United, Giggs has never had a look in as a penalty taker, with his double against Spurs the first instance of him being on spot kick duty for the club in the regulation 90 minutes of a competitive football match. In recent times, Giggs has successful scored in penalty shootouts in the 2008 Champions League final and the Community Shield in the same year, but missed in the 2009 Community Shield defeat to Chelsea. Nani was also on target in the same Champions League win in Moscow, as well as in a shootout in a friendly tournament in 2009 against Bayern Munich and for Portugal U-21s against Italy in 2007. He scored for United against Southampton in an FA Cup tie, and was successful from the spot in United’s final preseason friendly against an Airtricity League XI. It is a solid record, and one that makes him at least as obvious a candidate as Giggs.

It is worth noting, amidst the criticism from Ferguson that Nani’s penalty against Fulham was at a comfortable height for Stockdale, that he struck it in a similar direction to his penalty in the Champions League final. The prize on that occasion was somewhat bigger than sealing three more league points early in the season, with Nani having to score his effort or Chelsea were European champions. In Moscow, Nani was entrusted with the crucial fifth penalty, whilst Giggs was only the seventh taker on the list once the shootout went to sudden death. Nani put his penalty to the right of Petr Cech at a saveable height but with enough power to find the inside of the netting. Against Fulham, he was not quite as accurate, with Stockdale getting across quickly to deny the winger. Nani will have received plenty of criticism and vitriol for missing the kick, but deserves credit for being willing to step up and take the risk. On another day, his confidence will bear fruit for United, just as it did in Moscow.

United have slipped behind Chelsea after just two games in the Premier League title race but this is nothing new for Ferguson’s side. It is now four straight seasons that his team have failed to claim a full six points from the first two games but in two of the previous three campaigns, United have still ended up as champions. The Blues have arguably had as easy a start to the campaign fixture-wise as they could have hoped, and whilst they still deserve a lot of credit for their ruthless demolitions of West Brom and Wigan, there is still far too much football left to be played for United to be despondent at having just the four points so far.

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