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Nani’s olive branch

Manchester United’s recent FA Cup 5th round triumph over Reading is likely to be remembered as little more than a mere footnote in what is shaping up to be a successful season at Old Trafford. In many ways United’s 2-1 victory typified much of what has made them prosperous this season, hugely efficient with the occasional sprinkling of quality.

It was the identity of their latest match winner which was undoubtedly the most beneficial aspect of Monday night’s victory. Nani’s club form and reputation may have somewhat nosedived over the last 18 months, but the Portuguese winger appeared as a first half substitute with the required direct approach and necessary vigour to ensure Ferguson’s side progressed. Nani scored the opener, having previously tested Federeci on numerous occasions, before crossing perfectly for Hernandez to head a decisive second.

Nani had initially thrived in the aftermath of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to the Bernabeu in 2009. He was a shining light in United’s last championship winning side in the 2010-2011 campaign, winning Player’s Player of the Season aswell as forcing his way into the PFA Team of the Year. However, an unhealthy collaboration of injuries and a dip in form have seen the development of the 26-year-old stall relatively dramatically since these accolades. Many accepted the imminent arrival of the Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace as confirmation that Nani will be leaving Old Trafford this summer.

The stand out criticism of the player would be his lack of decision-making capabilities, which on close inspection appears to infuriate a certain Wayne Rooney more than others. Nani often makes the wrong decision in the final third; wasting promising positions he consistently engineers for himself. A lack of decisiveness in attacking positions is a forgivable trait when concerning a promising young player (see Ronaldo’s primary years at Old Trafford), but not an endearing attribute for a seasoned international.

A further issue is Nani’s apparent lax attitude with regards to his defensive duties. He has never taken an appropriate level of interest in the necessity that is tracking back and helping out his full backs during his spell at Old Trafford. This unwillingness to ‘do the dirty work’ is never realistically going to sit well with Sir Alex Ferguson, a manager who judges work rate to be an absolute pre-requisite of any footballer, bar uncanny levels of skill. 

Despite the aforementioned criticisms, Nani possesses exceptional technical and physical qualities. Since joining from Sporting Lisbon in 2007, the winger has produced a plethora of breathtaking moments, namely a solo effort at The Emirates in January 2010 and a blockbuster of a strike at home to Chelsea last season. He possesses the trickery and pace to win important matches on a regular basis, something he may have the opportunity to prove again both domestically and on the continent.

Furthermore, it should be noted that Nani’s previously discussed decision making flaws in no way make him a selfish footballer. Since August 2009 Nani has laid on 31 premier league goals for team mates, the highest over that period. Like his international compatriot Ronaldo, Nani also possesses a powerful physique and enough pace to unnerve in the most accomplished of full backs. At the age of 26 the winger is entering his stereotypical ‘peak years,’ if is able to correctly harness his undoubted capabilities he could yet become a consistently pivotal player for both club and country.  

Albeit sadistically, recent performances and injury issues from United’s other wide players are likely to aid Nani’s cause further still. Antonio Valencia has failed to discover the sparkling form he produced in the second half of last season, producing many tepid performances of late. In addition, Ashley Young has struggled with injuries and has at times been criticised for being predictable. Bearing this in mind, it is highly likely that the Portuguese international will get a chance to impress in league games against QPR and Norwich, before the key return encounter with Real Madrid.

In Friday’s pre-match press conference Sir Alex Ferguson expressed his desire for Nani to stay at the club beyond his current contact which expires in 2014. The United manager labelled his winger as ‘one of the best match winners in Europe’, although spoke of the need for the 26 year old to show heightened levels of consistency. Nani appears to have been handed an olive branch by his occasionally uncompromising manager, and will be expecting to feature far more prominently in ensuing weeks.

It would be contentious to suggest that Nani has the capability and hunger to become a key player for Manchester United season upon season, but he does now have an excellent opportunity to play a vital role over the next 13 weeks as United continue their assault on all three fronts.