Sir Alex Ferguson has plenty to smile about at the moment. Manchester United are just one point behind leaders Chelsea and are rolling into form at the perfect time. Impressive victories in recent weeks over Arsenal, Portsmouth and AC Milan have strengthened the belief in the squad and a Carling Cup final against Aston Villa presents an added bonus. Ferguson also has Wayne Rooney in stunning form, playing the best football of his career and on track to finish with his best ever Premier League goal tally.

But his mood must be forever changing where winger Nani is concerned. Electric performances against Manchester City and Arsenal thrust the Portuguese back into the spotlight, just when his season seemed to be grinding to a halt. There was renewed hope that he was converting the potential into end product. Then, trusted once more away to Villa in the league, Nani was sent off in the first half for a two-footed lunge and United had to settle for a 1-1 draw from a game they would likely otherwise have won. The Champions League trip to Milan was another setback for the winger as he put in an ineffective display, drawing the ire of Rooney on several occasions for not making the most of promising positions out wide. And it is inconsistency like this that has continually blighted the Portuguese’s career to date at Old Trafford.
The expectation has always been that Nani would mature in the way Cristiano Ronaldo did before taking the Premier League by storm, yet he continues to mix the sublime with the disappointing. For much of his time at Old Trafford, the same issues have let Nani down. Too often the winger’s delivery has been poor or he has greedily shot at goal when team-mates were better placed. But there have been enough bright moments – sometimes in the shape of stunning long range strikes – to suggest he is worth persisting with and so, despite never being sure as to what type of performance he will get, Ferguson has been willing to gamble.

Nani certainly took his opportunity when Ferguson picked the winger at home to Man City in the Carling Cup last month. He tormented the City back four all night and added the creativity that United had been missing in previous weeks.

However, the Portuguese saved his most priceless contributions for the Emirates Stadium against Arsenal. A magical piece of skill on the right flank bamboozled Gael Clichy and turned the game in United’s favour. Then, showing a more unselfish side to his game, he teed up Rooney on the counter attack as the champions doubled their lead. It was Nani’s finest hour in a United shirt.

He was suddenly making all the right choices – bringing others into play when possible and picking the appropriate moments to attack the full-back. There was never any doubt over the winger’s skill and pace but his decision-making, which was badly flawed on other occasions, was now matching his natural ability. With all these attributes coming together, Nani was an unstoppable force, a la Ronaldo.

But then came trips to Villa and Milan which confirmed that the Portuguese still had not shed the “inconsistent” tag. With one rash challenge and a series of mis-placed crosses, Nani fell a few steps backwards again.
The frustration must be unbearable at times for Ferguson. Knowing that Nani could be a regular goal-scorer with his energy and ball-striking ability yet witnessing the familiar sight of his winger losing his way cannot be easy. The 4-5-1 formation seems well-suited to Nani’s game, placing slightly less emphasis on protecting the full-back and offering the freedom to bomb forward, but he has blown hot and cold in an advanced role on the right.

As the 3rd April showdown with Chelsea at Old Trafford grows nearer, Manchester United will be striving to keep the Blues within touching distance. That means handling the pressure week by week through turning in professional performances. Nani will be serving a three-match ban following the red card at Villa Park and his enforced absence may cost him if Antonio Valencia seizes his chance.
There is no doubt that on his day Nani can be a devastating weapon for Ferguson to unleash but with every game so critical at this stage of the campaign, can he afford to risk one of the Portuguese’s off days?
Ultimately, though, United held off making a big move during the January transfer window and so Nani will receive another opportunity to show the maturity that comes from learning from his mistakes. He has to take that opportunity, otherwise his Manchester United career may have run its course.


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