James Lawton: United still flat despite Nani's shot of brilliance
Monday 27 August 2007
It was a terrible week for the manager, and the embattled football club who had spent a fortune in return for a place in the relegation zone; a club of glorious tradition but with so many fans filled with doubts about the future, who wondered quite what game the directors and the manager were playing.
Then there were the problems of Tottenham Hotspur.
But if the joke eventually returned to the laps of the Spurs directors, led by chairman Daniel Levy – they all had the sheepish expressions of men who maybe realised that in the last few days they had brought to life every doubt that ever existed about the knowledge and instincts of the men in the football boardroom – the United deliverance that came with the late goal by the £17m signing Nani was rather less than profound.
The truth was that it was still another day when a Premier League which spent the summer luxuriating in reflections of unparalleled wealth and glory showed more glimpses of something less than a perfect pitch of new competition. You could put it another way. It is a new season for which a search for something more than a touch of fleeting quality has become pretty much a pursuit of a lost chord.
Who will be the first serious title contenders to announce an authentic strain of quality? At the fourth time of asking, United came up with a largely unsatisfactory answer.
It's true the quick and tricky Nani produced a moment of extreme excitement – and relief – when his drive flicked off his £20m team-mate Carlos Tevez for the winner, but the 19-year-old Portuguese, like the rest of his team-mates, still has a formidable amount to prove.
Based on his performances against Manchester City and now Spurs, Nani is in urgent need of a hard and inventive edge. No doubt the case for the defence is that he is young and must be given time to find his way in the new terrain of the Premier League. For the moment, though, he must suffer the charge that he doesn't appear to be a whole lot more than another scampering indicator of football inflation.
Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Old Trafford in the wake of David Beckham for a mere £12m and almost immediately announced an extraordinary range of natural skill and easy power. Maybe Nani will grow over the next season or two, but there was something about his compatriot Ronaldo that instantly assuaged doubts. He might have a period of immaturity, he might provoke plenty of exasperation, but here surely was a serious talent. Nani has ability, unquestionably, but it is not the kind that threatens to knock your eye out.
Frankly, much the same currently has to be said of his team – the reigning champions of England. Until Nani broke down Tottenham resistance, which reached its most passionate – we are speaking relatively here – when the referee Howard Webb twice denied them penalties, United's level of creativity had dropped alarmingly.
Michael Carrick was pulled off for the midfielder Chris Eagles to have a chance to make some inroads into the Spurs defence – and here was another disturbing example of a high-priced young player failing to deliver the kind of quality you might expect when it matter, in this case one valued last season at £18m.
The more the deadlock deepened, the more you had the sense of a season desperately in such of a vein of quality.
You also had to say that if the White Hart Lane board has behaved quite appallingly over the last few days, if it has organised its club in a way almost guaranteed to produce an unworkable clutter of separate chains of command, it also has its reasons for feeling a fairly deep level of frustration.
The beleaguered manager, Martin Jol, has done some splendid work. He has undoubtedly lifted the team to their most seriously competitive level since the time of Terry Venables, and there were moments yesterday when the quality of Tottenham's work was striking, generally when Dimitar Berbatov was around the ball and the highly promising young Gareth Bale was intruding into the action.
But always there was the feeling that this was a team who didn't really believe they had the right to make serious arguments with Manchester United, which was fortunate for the champions. There were times when even the relentless Paul Scholes seemed on the point of abandoning the challenge of setting United free, of providing the kind of interventions which so often last season pushed backed the barriers.
In the end it was Nani who made the run for a touch of United daylight. However, it still left us in search of something to lift a new season which still refuses to fly.
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