Nani always produced his best against Arsenal when a Man United player… so will the Portuguese winger turn it on again when Sporting Lisbon face the Gunners in the Europa League?
- Nani’s Sporting Lisbon are set to face Arsenal in the Europa League on Thursday
- The Portuguese winger often performed well for Man United against Arsenal
- Nani was tipped to emulate Cristiano Ronaldo but was often inconsistent
- Nonetheless, he won five Premier League titles and Champions League there
- Since leaving United, he has played for Fenerbahce, Valencia and Lazio
- He returned home to Sporting Lisbon at the beginning of the current campaign
Mention the word ‘Arsenal’ and a smile is certain to form on Nani’s lips.
The Portuguese winger always seemed to reserve his finest performances for matches against the Gunners during seven eventful years with Manchester United.
There was the FA Cup tie in 2008 when, with United four goals to the good, Nani humiliated Justin Hoyte by repeatedly juggling the ball on his head like a trick-performing seal.
Nani humiliates Arsenal by performing a seal dribble during Man United’s 4-0 win in 2008
Nani scores United’s third goal in that FA Cup fifth round tie – one of his best displays for them
Nani’s showboating in that game infuriated Arsenal and especially captain William Gallas
In the end he was clattered by Mathieu Flamini, having earlier received similar treatment from William Gallas, who thought the Portuguese was ‘showboating’.
Nani, who scored one goal and created two more that night, probably didn’t care too much.
Three years later and another Old Trafford evisceration as Arsenal crashed 8-2 in a Premier League game. Nani was also brilliant that day, scoring United’s fifth in what was the nadir of Arsene Wenger’s 22 years there.
In all, Nani scored twice and created four goals in nine meetings with the Gunners, winning seven of nine encounters at a time when Sir Alex Ferguson’s side truly held the balance of power in England.
It’s a record that could potentially bode well for Sporting Lisbon, Nani’s present side, as they prepare to face Unai Emery’s resurgent Gunners in the Europa League on Thursday night.
Nani celebrates scoring the fifth of United’s eight goals against Arsenal at Old Trafford in 2011
The Portuguese winger celebrates scoring against Arsenal at the Emirates in 2010
Nani record vs Arsenal
All games for Manchester United
Goals scored 2
For United fans, the lingering perception of Nani probably involves those Arsenal games – happy memories but also a source of regret that Nani never fulfilled all of his potential at Old Trafford.
When Nani signed from Sporting in 2007, there was hope he would be the next Cristiano Ronaldo, who’d followed the same route four year earlier and was quickly maturing into a world class footballer.
As team-mate Rio Ferdinand said at the time: ‘Nani’s got the potential to do what he wants. He’s one of the sharpest players around, has a great strike with both feet. He’s got the potential to be a top, top player.’
With the ability to play on both wings, blistering pace and a decent shot after cutting inside, Nani was very much another box of tricks in the United side.
But while Ronaldo’s career trajectory continued ever upwards, Nani’s didn’t. It took a long time to convince Ferguson of his reliability but he eventually settled and was the Players’ Player of the Year in 2010-11.
Nani is preparing to take on the Gunners again with Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League
The 31-year-old is pictured in training this week ahead of Thursday’s Europa League match
Not that his time at United wasn’t successful – such was United’s strength at the time, Nani won four Premier League titles, the League Cup twice and the Champions League in 2008.
But for every scincillating performance like the ones against Arsenal, there was an ineffecutal one, adding to the sense there could have been more from him.
Here’s Ferdinand again, but with the benefit of hindsight: ‘I think the most frustrating thing is when you know you’ve got players in your team with undoubted ability – great ability, got everything – but don’t consistently get that out onto the pitch.
‘Nani was a great player. I remember he started one of the seasons like a house on fire and he definitely would have won Player of the Year if he continued that vein of form.
‘He just got sidetracked. I don’t know, he just didn’t do it all the time.’
Nani always considered Ferguson a ‘father figure’ and when the Scot retired, there was always a risk he would fade further from the limelight, especially when injuries started to take their toll.
‘Maybe I could have played more games but the routine at that club, especially under Ferguson, was to alternate the players,’ Nani said in a 2016 interview.
Nani performs his trademark flip celebration after scoring for United against Tottenham
The winger always suffered by comparison to his countryman Cristiano Ronaldo at United
Ronaldo and Nani celebrate with the Premier League trophy after United’s 2008 title win
Nani was central to Portugal’s triumph at the 2016 European Championship in France
Nani career stats
2005-2007 SPORTING LISBON
76 matches, 11 goals
2007-2015 MANCHESTER UNITED
230 matches, 40 goals
2014-2015 SPORTING LISBON (LOAN)
37 matches, 12 goals
47 matches, 12 goals
26 matches, 5 goals
2017-2018 LAZIO (LOAN)
25 matches, 3 goals
2018-2019 SPORTING LISBON
9 matches, 4 goals
450 matches, 87 goals
112 matches, 24 goals
Portuguese Cup 2006-07, 2014-15
Premier League 2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2012-13
League Cup 2008-09, 2009-10
Community Shield 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011
Champions League 2007-08
FIFA Club World Cup 2008
European Championship 2016
Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, gave Nani a considerable vote of confidence with a six-year contract in September 2013 – but then did not play him. Nani had hit the ceiling at Old Trafford.
‘It could have been the best moment of my life but it turned into the worst,’ he recalled to The Guardian. It was something that made me very down, very disappointed.’
He was then a victim of Louis van Gaal’s desire to clear the decks, spending the 2014-15 season on loan at Sporting before joining Fenerbahce for £4.25m in 2015.
Nani was still only 28 at that point, supposedly entering the prime of his career, but seemingly lost his way.
He never took to Turkish football and lasted just one season before heading to Valencia. He spent 2017-18 on loan at Lazio, before returning home to Lisbon last summer.
Yet amid all that, Nani was outstanding when Portugal won the European Championship in the summer 2016.
He scored three during the tournament in France and was the man Ronaldo looked for to pass on the captain’s armband when he broke down injured – and in tears – during the final.
Nani got the job done, the pride of a nation. Indeed, 112 caps and 24 goals for Portugal, plus his impressive collection of medals, hardly speaks of a failure.
Perhaps we are underwhelmed by Nani because his entire career is viewed through the prism of Ronaldo’s brilliance.
Ronaldo was, after all, the guy Nani lodged with when he first moved to Manchester, the man he was expected to emulate.
‘They were expecting me to be the next Ronaldo but that’s unfair,’ Nani said. ‘We are different players, different personalities. Maybe it was a mistake to compare us.’
At 31, there’s no chance Nani will emulate Ronaldo’s stratospheric achievements now.
But, as Arsenal could discover on Thursday night and in the Emirates Stadium return in two weeks, he could still have a trick or two up his sleeve.
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