Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha will not go down as one of the Manchester United greats. Signed for something around £16m in 2007, Nani has never totally won the hearts of the Old Trafford faithful. But Nani has always been one of my favourite players at United. Friends and pundits have maligned him for reasons I find hard to disagree with, but I’ve always fought his corner.
This week saw him fly-kick his way into the headlines. The general consensus seems to be that Nani’s red card against Real Madrid, with United in complete control of the second leg of the European Cup tie at Old Trafford, was unjust. My initial reaction was that it was a “European” free kick unworthy of even a booking. Had that incident not happened, the story of Nani’s night would have been dramatically different.
Drafted into the United line-up to some people’s surprise, Nani rose to the occasion against Madrid. He provided an invaluable outlet, with David De Gea in particular clearly tasked with hitting Nani on the break whenever he retrieved the ball with Madrid overloaded in United’s half. His ability to knock the ball passed a defender and pick it up in the space behind the man was invaluable in an attritional game where every second of relief for the Vidic-marshalled backline was critical. He was also the reason that United led the game. An attack was kept alive by Nani, who chased down what looked like a dead cause, won the ball back, and played the ball in that Sergio Ramos flicked into his own goal.
That moment summed up why I am so endeared to Nani. If this had been a game against Reading, he’d have been on his heels. But as it was Real Madrid, he was onto it like a whippet. Conversely, this is exactly what frustrates others about him.
To me, he is a “United player”. Born on a remote island, abandoned by his parents by the age of 12, one of 14 siblings, he has risen to prominence and milked the limelight. He tries things that very few players would dare try; he scores goals few players could possibly dream of. He celebrates goals in style, he partakes in his fair share of team banter, and he gets crashed into by undercover police cars. In addition, Nani has 3 Premier League winners’ medals, one League Cup winners’ medal, one Club World Cup winners’ medal and a tidy European Cup winners’ medal to boot. He could do with hiring some cabinet storage space from “legends” like Steven Gerrard and Alan Shearer.
He’s won Players’ Player of the Year at United in 2011 and to all intents and purposes was the best player in the league that season; beaten to the individual awards by Gareth Bale by virtue of the date when the votes were cast.
When you consider the amount of money paid for players these days, that £16m is money well spent.
His form is inconsistent but he has often delivered at crucial times and when he goes through his annual patches of good form, Ferguson often drains every ounce of value from it. At United, he is the only player we have who can do something magical; the only player who, with one bit of trickery, can open a game and turn it on its head. Although van Persie comes close in those terms, he doesn’t have the attributes Nani has to mug off a defender. He’s done it often in the past, and I hope he’s around for a few more years to do it some more. At 26, Nani is still young. I, just as much as any United fan, hope he can deliver as consistently as he did in that 2010-11 season. But even if he doesn’t, he is worth keeping around for what he can deliver.
Nani you are okay, you are okay Nani.
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