Portugal’s run to the Euro 2012 semi-finals has rightly been accompanied by appreciation of the talents of winger Cristiano Ronaldo, whose goals, speed, technique and intuition have seen off the Netherlands and Czech Republic.
But the fast-paced counter-attacks, which will be so crucial to Portugal’s chances against Spain in Wednesday’s semi-final in Donetsk, also rely on the swift directness of the ‘other winger’ Nani.
The 25-year-old Manchester United forward has learnt how to apply his lightning speed and clever touches effectively, swapping flanks with Ronaldo and frequently getting into central positions when his team mate is wide.
In the past Nani drew criticism, particularly in club football, for a tendency to look for goal too early and sometimes to ignore team mates in better positions, but he has adjusted his game to become an effective creator.
Just as Alex Ferguson took time to get the best out of Nani, so Portugal have had to be patient with the talented wide-man, with coach Paulo Bento gaining the fruits of a long-term relationship with the player.
Bento was a coach in Sporting Lisbon’s youth academy when a raw Nani was trying to break through at the club.
“He is one of the main reasons I am where I am because he opened doors and my eyes and made me see what I was doing was wrong many times,” Nani said last week.
“He made me realise if I wanted to be here, as I am today, I needed to change certain things. He believed in me,” he added.
Nani went to Sporting after a tough childhood as an immigrant from Cape Verde in a broken family in Lisbon’s tough Amadora district.
Local club Real Massama brought the young Nani into their youth system, providing him with security.
“It was difficult to live there, always problems with the police and shootings. There was violence. There was a big gang of us, close friends, who used to go around together when we were young. Now some of those guys are in prison. Football was the only way to get out,” Nani once said.
Massama were rewarded with a healthy five percent of Nani’s 25.5 million euro transfer fee when he moved from Sporting to United in 2007 and while it is the English club who have benefited from the winger’s skills in recent years as he has helped them to three Premier League titles, Bento is getting a return on his investment at this tournament.
Nani’s pace and awareness were exemplified by Portugal’s second goal in their 2-1 win over the Netherlands in the decisive final group game.
Ronaldo swung the ball out wide to Nani who burst forward and picked out his former Manchester United team mate with a pinpoint pass.
It was a Nani pass to Joao Moutinho which set up Ronaldo’s headed winner against Czech Republic in the quarter-finals and while his famous backflip goal celebration has yet to be seen in Poland or Ukraine, Spain will surely have the winger highlighted in their defensive plans.