Portugal must look to Nani when Cristiano Ronaldo isn't at his best
PARIS -- When Portugal take on Austria on Saturday, the key to the match may well be the former Sporting and Manchester United player -- just not the one you think.
He's 18 months younger than Cristiano Ronaldo and, in many ways, he's always been the "other guy". It doesn't make sense to compare, of course, especially not with some as universally all-everything as Ronaldo. Yet, given their parallel careers, you can't help yourself.
Nani arrived at Sporting a few weeks before Ronaldo left to join Manchester United. While Ronaldo was growing into his sculpted body -- and into superstar status -- Nani starred in Sporting's youth team, eventually making his debut at 17, just as Ronaldo had done two years earlier. The club knew they had something special. Here was another fleet-footed creative winger off the assembly line, maybe not in the same stratosphere as the one they sold to United, but blessed with potential and marketability.
Sure enough, two years later, Sporting sold Nani to Manchester United and for about one-and-a-half times as much as they got for Ronaldo. The pair spent two seasons together at Old Trafford before Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid. Together they won two Premier League titles, a League Cup and the Champions League. Nani was still considered a project, with minutes to be doled out to him carefully, and he had an injury-marred second season, but he did start to have an impact. It wasn't long before Sir Alex Ferguson picked him for some big games.
With Ronaldo gone, it was hoped he could go to the next level. For two years he did, it's just that he did not ascend to the one beyond. What followed were, effectively, two lost seasons in which he started a mere 14 games and coped with injury. Some questioned his motivation, others his professionalism. When Louis Van Gaal arrived, Nani quickly fell out with the new boss and left town.
Nani was still just 27, yet you wondered whether he'd end up as the answer to a trivia question. Instead, he buckled down. One solid loan season back home at Sporting in which he won the Portuguese Cup was followed by a cut-rate move -- just $7 million, less than a quarter of what United had paid for him -- to Fenerbahce. In Turkey, he showed he still had something to give and now he's on the brink of a move to Inter.
It's another step in the rebuilding of a career which has more chapters to be written.
Throughout all this Nani has been a consistent presence with Portugal. Indeed, his 97 caps make him fourth all-time, behind Luis Figo, Ronaldo and Fernando Couto. He's played Tonto to Ronaldo's Lone Ranger more times than he can remember.
But this time, for Portugal to do well, things may need to be different. Ronaldo remains the hub of the Portuguese wheel, the focus of the opposition's attention. But he's coming off a long season and his fitness, as evidenced both in the Champions League final and in the opener against Iceland, is not something to be taken for granted. He's capable of singlehandedly carrying this side, but it's not something you want to bank on.
That's where Nani's contribution becomes key. Simply put, there are no other convincing options up front in Fernando Santos' squad. You're looking at guys like Eder, who is 28 and has scored all of three goals for the national team, or Ricardo Quaresma, relative to whom Nani is the epitome of consistency and reliability.
Ronaldo needs a sidekick who can take the pressure off, particularly if, as he did against Iceland, Santos sticks with a side whose midfield is rather light on the scoring front. The four who started against Iceland --Joao Moutinho, Joao Mario, Danilo and Andre Gomes -- have a combined five goals in 119 international appearances. They are table-setters and ball-winners, not finishers.
Nani did his part against Iceland, clinically breaking the ice for Portugal. But he'll need to continue contributing. He's not a natural forward, but by this stage, after nearly a decade of playing alongside Ronaldo, you would hope that he has metabolized the movements required to turn the scraps that fall from the Real Madrid striker's table into goals.
Sometimes players in the latter part of their careers realize the clock is counting down, the sand is rushing through the hourglass and it's time to make every game count. Nani has certainly made a difference at club level these past two seasons. Portugal need him to do it at the Euros as well.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.