As Nani prepared to take a Manchester United corner during the second half of the club’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against Bayern Munich on Wednesday night, he paused and appealed to the referee for a few seconds’ respite. The winger was bent double, apparently catching his breath, but when he straightened up to take the kick he seemed to become light-headed and quite visibly took a step back to steady himself.
Having just sprinted from the halfway line to meet a through ball, only to see his shot blocked by Hans-Jorg Butt in the Bayern goal, Nani was entitled to be out of puff. However, the Portuguese appeared to be in danger of fainting. It was that sort of night at Old Trafford. Despite going into a three-goal lead with breathtaking verve during the first 43 minutes, United’s goal had fallen under siege from the German side during the second half. The momentum of the game was flowing overwhelmingly with Bayern. Ivica Olic’s goal had put the Croatian’s side back in the tie just before half-time, while United had lost Rafael and Wayne Rooney from their starting eleven due to, respectively, indiscipline and injury. So, when Nani was allowed to run beyond the Bayern back line, he had a chance to break the siege and restore United’s 3-goal cushion. He did not take it, and his reaction by the corner flag a few moments later showed what a strain the game was putting on the players not just physically but psychologically too.
As he stepped up to take that corner following Butt’s save, then, Nani knew he had missed more than the chance to score United’s fourth goal and possibly put the club through to the competition’s semi-finals. So long regarded as Ronaldo-lite, Nani started the season terribly but his effectiveness from wide positions has become one of the key features of United’s performances since the turn of the year. Completing his hat-trick in front of the Stretford End, with United’s backs to the wall against formidable and familiar opposition in the shape of the German four-time European Cup-winners, would have afforded Nani a moment as iconic as any of those enjoyed by the former World Player of the Year who departed United last summer. Just days after Easter, Nani could have completed his own resurrection as a United player with a more composed shot on goal.
Nani should not be too hard on himself. He was excellent on Wednesday night, posing both a threat from the left wing and attacking the penalty area when the ball was with Antonio Valencia on the other flank. Both of Nani’s goals came from crosses from the Ecuadorian; the two are beginning to work in tandem for United. When Rooney was substituted, it was Nani who moved into the middle to act as the spear with which to counterattack – the role that Ronaldo often took on as his United career blossomed. Nani’s stellar display against Arsenal at the Emirates might have had a happier result for United, but the responsibility that the Portuguese is increasingly being given in big games – and the way in which he is vindicating his selection with displays of intensity on the ball and awareness off it – is proving the fans who had written him off as a United player to have been somewhat hasty.