Portugal go into their eighth successive major tournament at the upcoming World Cup. Reaching three semi-finals (Euro 2000, WC 2006 and Euro 2012) and one final (Euro 2004) in the last decade and a half is a remarkable achievement for a country that is among the nani poorest and smallest in Western Europe.
Hopes of matching or even bettering that performance in Brazil very much rest on one man’s shoulders, the ex Manchester United number 7, Cristiano Ronaldo. But the key to how far Portugal go in the tournament could lie in how well the supporting cast of the current World Player of Year perform, not least another player who trod the same path from Sporting’s Alvalade stadium to Old Trafford.
Nani’s big money move to the English giants in the summer of 2007 took many by surprise. The size of the fee, the pressure to emulate the success of his compatriot and the obvious raw edges, notwithstanding his outstanding talent, were all causes for concern. Several Portuguese analysts opined he had made the switch too soon. Those fears proved unfounded as Nani settled quickly to become an integral part of three successive EPL title-winning teams, with a Champions League trophy thrown in for good measure.
“I feel I’m at the height of my ability. I genuinely believe I can become the best player in the world,” he said in 2010. Today, aspiring to take the crown of his great friend and international team-mate appears a distant dream. Injury and loss of form has seen Nani’s career stall badly in the last two years.
Thankfully for Portugal’s fans, his struggles at club level have had little impact on his displays whenever he pulls on the Seleção shirt. Nani complements Ronaldo perfectly and has consistently thrived with the extra space afforded by opponents double or triple marking the man on the opposite flank. His magnificent display and astonishing goal in the crunch match against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Euro 2012 qualification play-off, and a similarly sparkling performance in the do-or-die match versus the Netherlands in the tournament proper were high points exemplifying his importance to the team.
His forgettable campaign for United this season has had little or no effect on his status in coach Paulo Bento’s eyes. Nani took the captain’s armband in Ronaldo’s absence for Portugal’s final group qualifying match against Luxembourg, celebrating the occasion with another fine goal.
The strong Bento-Ronaldo-Nani axis is rooted in Sporting. Bento was a team-mate of Ronaldo’s at the Lisbon club. Upon hanging up his boots he coached the youth team containing Nani to the national championship, subsequently taking over the reins of the senior side and thrusting Nani straight into the first team – with conspicuous success for player and manager.
Bento has given Nani what he needs to thrive. Absolute trust in his capacities. With Portugal lacking a naturally creative playmaker, Nani’s contribution could be vital to prevent an over-reliance on Ronaldo and propel the nation to another memorable tournament.
As the second week of Portugal’s World Cup training camp drew to a close, Bento made a point of singling out the winger for special praise.
“Nani had a very, very good Euro 2012. He was highly influential on our game, not only from the attacking point of view, but also in relation to how we defended. It’s true that this year he’s had difficulties with fitness and because of the Manchester United manager’s choices. But in this training camp he has been in excellent shape, has trained 100% of the time and has shown an extremely positive attitude.”
Portugal’s probable starting XI (4-3-3):
Rui Patrício (Sporting), João Pereira (Valencia), Pepe (Real Madrid), Bruno Alves (Fenerbahçe), Fábio Coentrão (Real Madrid), William Carvalho (Sporting), Raul Meireles (Fenerbahçe), João Moutinho (Monaco), Nani (Manchester United), Hélder Postiga (Lazio), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
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