Manchester United may have coped without him but Nani's return, with a healthy dose of arrogance on and off the field, could drive Sir Alex Ferguson's team through a crucial period.
The Portuguese winger had been out for four matches with a hip problem before setting up Javier Hernandez's goal and then scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory over Stoke City on Tuesday that underlined United's quiet dominance of the title race. While many people scoff at their performances – even Nemanja Vidic has admitted he is surprised that United are top – Nani believes that Ferguson's side can continue their unbeaten run in the league to the end of the season, which would surely mean a record 19th league title.
Dimitar Berbatov has been capable of unplayable patches, Wayne Rooney has been more fitful and Hernandez has contributed but Nani, now in his fourth season at Old Trafford, has revelled in his responsibility this season, scoring six Premier League goals and setting up another nine.
With Antonio Valencia out with a knee problem until at least the end of February, Ji-sung Park away with South Korea for several weeks, Ryan Giggs not realistically expected to play in every match and continued question marks about Gabriel Obertan, Nani is likely to continue to have to carry that weight over the coming weeks. "Nani's been a real plus," defender Chris Smalling said. "He's so important in terms of our goal threat going forward and he's a real threat down that wing."
Nani has promised much more from himself and his team in the second half of the campaign and maintains they can plod their way to the title. He even believes they can emulate the Arsenal side that won the trophy in 2004 without losing a game. "I hope we can go the whole season unbeaten," Nani said.
"We are in a great position. We have been doing so well. We have to keep working hard and doing the same things. Providing we stay together I feel we will finish the season with something very special. It has been frustrating to miss the matches. I have had to watch them in my house, when sometimes things have not gone right and I feel I could help.
"But I feel OK now. I still need to train more but I am proud of my goal and hope to score more as the season goes on." With Ferguson claiming Rooney is unlikely to return from an ankle problem against Liverpool in the FA Cup on Sunday, there could be another start for the impressive Hernandez. The Mexican forward has had to grow used to sitting on the bench in the last couple of months but Nani feels the former Chivas forward has shown his reliability. "Javier has had a great start to his Manchester United career," he said. "He always scores at the right moment, when we need it. He has been a key player this season."