With Manchester United trailing 2-0 against Spurs, the lacklustre Nani is hauled off and replaced by Carlos Tevez. The Red Devils go on to hammer their opponents 5-2. Fast-forward a season and the story is a very different one. Nani opens the scoring against Arsenal and then runs the length of the field before playing the ball into Wayne Rooney. It finishes 3-1 and the Portuguese star declares it his best match so far.
It is this kind of inconsistency which has plagued the 23-year-old’s Old Trafford career. Fans can never be sure how their No.17 is going to perform. Flashes of brilliance are often interspersed with performances that scream of immaturity and a lack of awareness. Following his return from injury last January, however, something appeared to fall into place and he finished 2009/2010 in sublime form.
Confidence seems to have a direct correlation to his performances. Nani admitted that being given more time on the pitch last season had increased his self belief. The weight of expectation which accompanied his £17m signing could also be a factor. He was forced to bear a particularly challenging brunt. Comparisons with a certain compatriot were inevitable, although many have forgotten that Cristiano Ronaldo did not begin his Manchester United career in the scintillating form he has become synonymous with. Then there were stories that Sir Alex Ferguson was grooming him to become the new Ryan Giggs, something which must have played on Nani’s mind every time he was substituted for the legendary Welshman.
Perhaps it was with the confidence issue in mind that Sir Alex Ferguson decided to reward Nani’s displays by offering him a new four-year contract in March. Fans also appear to have overlooked the player’s past erratic displays and have recognised that he is able to conjure up world class skill and outmanoeuvre the Premiership’s best defenders on a regular basis. In the build up to this season, talk has focussed not on how the winger will perform, but where to play him in the first XI. The majority of Nani’s best performances last season were from the right flank but Antonio Valencia, who is only suited to this side of the pitch, was integral to Wayne Rooney’s goal scoring heroics, and fans would rather see Nani move to the left than the consistent Ecuadorian dropped from the side. His performance in Bayern Munich during the quarter-finals of the Champions League, however, suggests that he can easily make this position his own.
Nani’s main target for this season needs to be to score more in the league. A total of four is his best record since arriving in Manchester. Valencia is a more defensive minded player, and if Sir Alex opts to play a lone striker again, it will be up to Nani to help provide the goals. On their way to the title, Chelsea scored 17 times more than United, and Florent Malouda hit the back of the net 12 times. Coupled with the fact that the Red Devils do not have someone like Frank Lampard who is capable of 20 goals a season, Nani becomes all the more important. Playing down the left will allow him to cut inside more often, using his right foot, and this should be reflected in an increased goal tally.
2009/2010 did not get off to the best of starts for Nani. This time round, however, things seem more positive. Although visibly disappointed about missing the World Cup with a dislocated collarbone, the winger has put all his efforts into being fit for the new campaign. Nani himself seems really optimistic and stated: ‘I am so happy to come back. Now I just want to start the season as quickly as possible, to play and score goals.’ The memories of Cristiano Ronaldo are beginning to be banished to the Old Trafford hall of fame and people are willing to accept Nani as Nani, and not as an heir to the superstar from Madeira’s throne. If confidence was really all that was holding United’s No.17 back, then he should be in for a sensational season.