Hungry Nani on the hunt for taste of big-game glory
Resurgent midfielder insists he can handle the pressure as Manchester title rivals come calling
Nani is becoming the self-appointed communicator in the Manchester United dressing room, matched perhaps only by Chris Smalling for his willingness to linger in far flung corners of European football and talk. But loquaciousness is one thing, candour something else and the look of surprise in his eyes when it is suggested that Manchester City's FA Cup semi-final over Manchester United must be a form of hurt which needs avenging on Sunday is not entirely convincing.
"No..." he says, the wide eyes providing good effect. "All the players have forgotten this now especially as we beat City in the Community Shield [3-2] at Wembley at the start of the season. It's important that we remember that, rather than the semi-final or any other games we lose."
The Cup defeat did matter, though. It was only City's second win over United in the Abu Dhabi era – the first was a first-leg Carling Cup tie which was cancelled out in the second game – and one which punctured the aura of red invincibility around Manchester. That's the city where, as the late Tony Wilson once reminded us, the rivalry belongs to a population who "do things differently – but who find it difficult sometimes to share the same oxygen".
Nani might airbrush out the 1-0 Wembley defeat of 16 April, but it has already contributed there to a nuanced, though unmistakable, change of tone this week, in respect of Sunday's meeting of the Manchester clubs at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson began it when he, an individual who hates giving journalists the satisfaction of talking superlatives, agreed that this was his most important encounter with City in nearly 25 years at Old Trafford.
Nani did not challenge the idea that there was more motivation than ever now that City have replaced United at the top and will open a five-point lead if they win. "They are doing fantastic and of course it will be more difficult than other games," he said. "The preparation is always different for derby games. Every year the games against City seem to get more important. We usually play well against them and I hope I can make a contribution to make sure we win on Sunday."
City have not won at Old Trafford since Sven Goran Eriksson managed them into the game which marked 50 years since the Munich disaster. "To be fair we were lucky in the home game that year [which City won 1-0]," Eriksson reflected. "Yes, we were lucky to win that. But I don't think we were lucky away – we deserved to win that. I think we played very well that day."
A 21-year-old Nani flickered sporadically on that emotive day; that he should command a starting place again, nearly four years on, attests to his powers of perseverance. He has re-emerged this season from the second cloud to have descended on him since he arrived from Sporting Lisbon in July 2007. The first loomed overhead in spring 2008, when he marched out of Old Trafford after his removal at half-time against Tottenham meant he had been had been substituted in all six league starts and had never made it beyond 70 minutes.
Then, last season, he found himself omitted from the starting line-up for some important fixtures and the word from Portugal in April was, again, that he attributed his limited appearances to the injury keeping Antonio Valencia out and was ready to leave for Italy.
It is a more subdued Valencia who has been left in the shade by Nani's sparkling form of this season but after another influential second-half performance in Bucharest, the 24-year-old Nani seemed to feel it necessary to send a message with his repeated insistence that he was a man for the big fixtures. "I feel comfortable in these sort of games. I like the pressure these games bring," he said. "That is what I have been doing. I have been waiting for these big games because I believe I have the quality and mentality to play in them."
When United beat City last season, his excellent goal was overshadowed by the best Rooney says he has ever scored. "Yes, I scored a good goal but Rooney's was even better," he said, smiling at the memory. "I feel confident and comfortable I can score against [City] again. Of course we are [all] confident. We should be confident every time we play at home. Even when we play away. The most important thing is at home, we have to believe we are going to win most of the games. We should not forget, we are United."
A delivery from the self-styled team spokesman that even his manager would be pleased to call his own.
* Striker Danny Welbeck is on the verge of agreeing a new five-year, £50,000-a-week contract with United, a reward for his good start to the season, it was reported last night.
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