Nani’s progress over the past year is remarkable, sSo much so that the Portuguese winger confidently expects Manchester United to win the title, while being nominated for next year’s Ballon D’Or. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson, keen to keep his player’s feet on the ground, has warned the 24-year-old that success with United comes first.
Indeed, Nani is arguably in the top three most influential players at the club. On this season’s evidence he is United’s single most creative force. Not that the winger has ever been short in a measure of confidence; just application, with maturity coming late to the former Sporting Lisbon player.
“It is easier for me to stand out now that Cristiano Ronaldo has left,” said Nani somewhat frankly week.
“He is a fantastic player who got all the attention and deservedly so. I loved playing alongside him and we got on well. But it is also true that when he left it freed up space for other players to shine. I saw an opportunity to demonstrate my qualities and to show the people here what I can do.
“I know I can become a better player and my aim now is to get on the list of nominees for next year’s Ballon d’Or – the world player of the year prize.”
As much as Nani has improved, from an eternally frustrating talent to one with genuine end product, he is some way short of the truly destructive force that is Ronaldo, or indeed the mesmeric skills of Lionel Messi. Let alone exhibit the consistent influence of this year’s Ballon D’Or favourite Xavi Hernandez.
Ronaldo, for example, is La Liga’s Pichichi with 17 goals in 16 games this season. Messi meanwhile has 25 goals in all competitions. At this rate the brilliant Argentinian will score 50 in the campaign – a truly stunning feat.
The question is, of course, whether Nani can improve further, winning the biggest games for United at home and abroad. Does the 24-year-old have the raw talent to match Ronaldo and can he add even greater end product to his game? Certainly Nani has a long way to go if the stats prove anything if the winger is match his peers at the very top of the game.
In 2008/9 the winger scored 10 and created four in 31 games for the club and country in all competitions. The stat was eight and nine respectively in 33 last season. Good but certainly not great by any measure.
Improvement is coming – to date Nani has nine goals and 11 assists at close to the half way mark in the current campaign. If an end season target of 20 goals and a similar number of assists is any measure, it will surely put the player in the frame for domestic personal honours.
Global recognition could follow but perhaps only if United does well in the Champions League this season. That of course comes with no guarantee.
But person honours are a goal that Ferguson has little time for and certainly not when it comes to Nani who is only now, more three seasons into his United career, is beginning to justify the £17 million transfer fee.
“I am not too worried about the Ballon D’Or to be honest,” said the United manager.
“His aim should be to be successful here. The ability was always there. He has got a tremendous instinct for the game. He is two-footed, quick and brave. He never misses a training session and always wants to play.”
“When we bring young players to the club, you hope maturity comes quickly. In the case of Nani, it has been a bit slower. Now we are seeing some good signs. He is improving, as players do as they go along here, and hopefully it will continue.”
Ferguson is right of course. Statistics are one thing, maturity and consistency quite another. Nani is a star at United but arguably because this is the weakest pool of talent at the club for the past five years. Add Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and younger versions of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, and an in-form Wayne Rooney to the squad, and suddenly Nani is no longer a star asset.
It’s something, for all the bravado, Nani will do well to remember in the months to come.