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Is it really time up for Nani at Old Trafford?

It doesn’t look good does it? Brought off at half-time whilst trailing at home to Tottenham which rather ironically then helps spark that tremendous comeback. I can understand why he wouldn’t be desperate to stay behind and encourage his teammates but it was hardly the wisest of choices to make and it’s difficult to defend a quite childish, sulky and rather petty reaction to yet another below-par individual performance.

It didn’t get much better for the Portuguese winger in midweek either. A quick glance at Sir Alex’s team sheet for the Champions League encounter with Arsenal and the four letters ‘Nani’ were absolutely nowhere to be seen, not even on the substitutes bench.

I appreciate that I have to be careful with what I say from here on in as I am aware of the seismic split in opinions on the Cape Verde-born man of inconsistency and what he brings to our club but I’ll throw in my ten pennies worth and happily accept whatever flack is bound to be coming my way!

For a start let’s deal with this season and what exactly has gone wrong for Nani in United red. Well in the handful of Premier League appearances he’s made (just five as a starter would you believe) he’s hardly set the world alight but you can’t ignore the fact that he’s not even been afforded a full-ninety minutes.

Ji Sung Park’s notably impressive form (despite having tailed off somewhat in recent weeks) this season clearly hasn’t helped Nani’s cause either. You can bet your bottom dollar that if our tricky left winger were playing for anyone else in the Premier League he would have started far more than six league games and would’ve surely had more of a visible impact.

This may surprise you somewhat but I can actually reveal to you quite a different statistical story, especially if you purely take into account domestic league goals and assists. Park, for all his work rate, endeavour and tenacity, has scored one league goal and picked up three assists in the 21 Premier League fixtures he has been involved in. Nani on the other hand has played in only 11 Premier League matches (most of which were as substitute with miniscule amounts of time left) yet still has a goal and two assists to his name. Make of that what you will.

However well he does to cover it up, I’m sure Sir Alex will have surely expected slightly more from a player he shelled out around £14 million for in the summer of 2007. It can’t be denied that our manager has stood firmly by Nani’s side from the moment he stepped into Manchester, offering as much support as humanely possible. We saw it first of all with the Lucas Neill headbutt and since then Fergie has seemingly backed down in banning the 22-year-old winger’s somersault celebration too. Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha would certainly be wise not to take his current mentor for a ride as his patience is probably wearing pretty thin right now, however well he conceals it.

Incase you were wondering, Nani himself had this to say having been brought off at half-time against Spurs: ‘I have no problem with the manager but I am still in my apprenticeship here.’And it’s fair to say that at 22-years-old he is still learning his trade at a club where expectations are elevated like no other. Yet for how long can you keep blaming Nani’s immaturity and inept performances on age and how long will you give the apprentice to finally fulfil his massive potential?

Unfortunately for Nani, when you play for Manchester United, time is not something you can heavily rely on. With the acquisition of Zoran Tosic in January and rumours consistently linking Antonio Valencia with a move to the club, it’s really now or never if Nani is to grab his chance.

With all this relative negativity it’s about time I started talking about the strengths that Nani possesses and why he could still prove something of a valuable asset to us in the future.

Well we all witnessed exactly what he was capable of during his first season at Old Trafford last year and it was arguably one of the better debut season’s of any foreign import that has arrived at the club – certainly in recent times anyway. In 24 starts he scored four goals, created eleven and generally seemed much more confident in his own ability. He was no Stranger in Moscow either, coming on to play a part in extra time and then scoring in the shoot-out too.

Despite Nani’s lack of involvement in the league this season lest we forget that he has played a significantly important part in other competitions for us. Not only has he appeared in seven Champions League matches enroute to the semi-final but he was a major contributor to our Carling Cup success with three goals in six appearances. Add the couple of strikes he managed during our FA Cup campaign and Nani’s season starts to look less disappointing, even if ever so slightly.

Nani is now and always will invariably be stuck in the towering shadow of Ronaldo due to his style, potential and even nationality. It’s ultimately unfair as his Portuguese compatriot performed miracles last season and probably won’t ever achieve such lofty heights again during his career. Poor old Nani has come under stark criticism for not producing similar results but there is no other player in world football quite like Cristiano (bar Lionel Messi perhaps). To be fair you could argue that Ronaldo was some way behind Nani in terms of development during his second season at the club and look how our patience paid dividends then!

I’m going to stop rambling on now and place my cards firmly on the table by predicting that Nani will not only get a start in the lunch time game against Middlesbrough on Saturday but will also make an impression in the match too. Be it a goal, an assist or just a full-ninety minutes, Nani needs game time and when he has it, I’m sure he will produce.

Whatever your stance may be on Nani, there’s no question he’s been used in fits and spurts throughout this season and has clearly been unable to build up any real momentum as a consequence. I am by no means Nani’s biggest fan, far from it infact but hopefully Saturday will go some way to proving that the former Sporting Lisbon man does still have a future at Old Trafford. I sincerely hope he does anyway.

Ed: This was written prior to the Middlesbrough game.