Sixty seconds into Sporting’s crunch game against Porto last Friday, Nani picks up the ball 50 yards from goal, drives past a series of challenges from panicking defenders and dinks a clever diagonal pass to the right of the box. André Carrillo crosses, Jonathan Silva heads into the net and Sporting are one goal up.
That passage of play, in one of Portuguese football’s biggest fixtures, was another demonstration of the Portugal international's soaring confidence levels.
Ten days earlier, after a dazzling display capped by a wonderful 25-yard left-footer in the Champions League at Maribor, Nani had said: “It’s always good to score, but what’s more important is I’m pleased to show that I’m completely integrated into the team. I feel good and I’m confident.”
In between those two games was another against Gil Vicente, and he produced another splendid goal from distance – this time with his right foot – as part of another sparkling display in a 4-0 thrashing.
Seven years after a prodigiously talented 20-year-old had made the journey in the opposite direction, the deal to bring Nani back to the Alvalade from Old Trafford as part of the Marcos Rojo transfer looks like an astute piece of business by the Lisbon side. Especially as they're not paying one euro of his wages.
It didn't look that way at first, though, after a forgettable 'second debut' against Arouca in his first game back. Nani demanded the ball throughout, and when a penalty was awarded with the game still goalless he snatched the ball away from regular penalty taker Adrien Silva, and subsequently missed it. He was angry when coach Marco Silva hooked him shortly afterwards, and showed it.
Yet even in a match that did not go well for Nani, the touch, speed and technique within reach of only a chosen few was there for all to see.
The worry was that the team would be at the service of Nani, and not the other way round – at least in the mind of the player himself. Such concerns have proved unfounded. His absolute commitment in ensuing matches quickly won over team-mates and fans alike.
Nani has not been afraid to put his foot in, and his high-energy efforts have seen him permanently swapping flanks with fellow winger Carrillo, initiating intelligent combinations and regularly cutting infield where he has proven a potent threat with his fierce shooting using either foot. In short, he has become the fulcrum of Sporting’s attacking gameplan, always involved from the first to the 90th minute.
New-look Nani is a confident force in Portugal
Sporting and their fans are delighted to have him, but Nani himself – and by default his parent – also stand to benefit from the player’s determination to make good on his second chance.
That's the opinion of former Manchester United assistant coach Carlos Queiroz, anyway. Talking to Portugal’s Rádio Renascença, the ex-Iran boss said: “It’s a good solution for the three parties. This opportunity is a challenge, and can act as a platform to re-launch Nani’s career to the levels of excellence that he reached in the not-too-distant past.”
Indeed, those who claim Nani is simply not good enough for the Premier League have short memories, even accounting for the fact that Nani’s star had fallen so far that few United fans bemoaned Louis van Gaal’s decision to jettison the winger as he went about rebuilding the Red Devils.
Nani’s promising early seasons in England included helping United lift the Champions League trophy in 2008, scoring a nerveless penalty in the final shootout, and a wonderful 2010/11 campaign in which he was voted the club’s player of the year by his team-mates.
“I have done my best to help the team win the league and, of course, I have been very focused on working hard and improving as a player. This has been my most consistent season for United. Every year I’ve been here I have improved and this one was fantastic for me,” he said at the time.
Nani lifts the Champions League trophy in 2008
Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for Nani at Manchester United. A series of injuries, loss of form and intense competition for his position made him an increasingly peripheral figure at Old Trafford.
Yet just a month in Portugal appears to have helped him recapture his old swagger. Is it simply down to a lower level of competition? His performance against powerhouse Porto suggested otherwise.
More evidence that Nani has rediscovered his mojo may well be provided against Chelsea on Tuesday night in Lisbon. The more pertinent question from a United point of view, however, should be what he must now do to thrive at Old Trafford.
The answer surely lies in showing him a little love. Like the majority of flair players, Nani needs to feel he has the full trust of his coach to perform at his best. It is significant that throughout his tribulations at United in recent seasons, Nani maintained the utmost confidence of Portugal’s national team manager, Paulo Bento, the man who launched his career at Sporting.
Nani was always the second name on Portugal’s team-sheet, regardless of the playing time he was getting in England, and captained the team in Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence. Tellingly, despite his fluctuating form for United, he generally played at an excellent level when wearing his country’s shirt.
A storming season in Lisbon could yet see him return to Manchester with confidence again riding high, and him being ready to force his way back into Van Gaal’s plans. Sir Alex Ferguson certainly continues to believe in Nani’s talents. “To return to the club where he graduated is, I believe, a good choice as he would not have played regularly at United. Nani was my player for several years and I can say that he has fantastic talent.”