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Maturing Nani determined to follow own path

Nani may be enjoying his finest season to date in a Manchester United shirt, but comparisons with his illustrious predecessor Cristiano Ronaldo remain difficult to avoid.

Both are Portuguese internationals, both began their careers at Sporting Lisbon before joining United and both are lithe, skillful players who favour their right feet but are capable of playing on both sides of the pitch.

At 24, two years Ronaldo’s junior, Nani is beginning to shown signs of the consistency that catapulted his Portugal teammate to the international superstardom he currently enjoys.

It was in his fourth season at United, the 2006-07 campaign, that Ronaldo began to really hit his stride, scoring 23 goals and providing 19 assists in all competitions to inspire his team to the Premier League title.

The season after was the one that confirmed his superstar status, as he netted 42 times in 49 games as United claimed a league and Champions League double and he was awarded the Ballon d’Or.

Nani’s statistics are beginning to follow a similar upward trend.

Having never scored more than four league goals in a season since his 2007 switch from Sporting, he has more than double that under his belt already and has also laid on a league-high number of assists.

His game has developed, too, and he has jettisoned the showboating of old to become a much more direct — and much more effective — right-winger.

“It’s my best season at United but I don’t think about if I can improve more quickly than Ronaldo or any other player,” said Nani.

“I just think about me and what I can do for the club, what I can do for myself in the future. At the moment I’m doing really well and I hope to improve even more.”

Nani’s coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, has praised Nani for his development this season and drawn a link between the progress that Ronaldo made at the same stage of his career.

However, while Ronaldo has morphed into a goal-scoring machine of scarcely believable prolificacy since his 2009 switch to Real Madrid, Nani is content to pursue his own development.

“I can score in the middle, on the left, on the right,” he says, when asked if he would enjoy playing in the centre like Ronaldo occasionally does.

“I don’t think about being like someone, like Ronaldo or like (Barcelona’s Lionel) Messi. I just want to be Nani, a good player, and I want people to enjoy watching me play.”

Despite having gone a long way towards silencing the critics who were keen to dismiss him as a one-trick Ronaldo-lite, Nani knows that the only way to etch his name into United’s folklore is by picking up silverware.

“It’s good, but I don’t want to focus on (the statistics) because I know the most important thing is to win a trophy with the team,” he says.

“I’d prefer to finish the season with some trophies. I want to be a team player first.”

Premier League leaders United face a critical period in their quest to win a record 19th English title. Rather than being daunted, Nani says the faith of the fans can translate into a feeling of fearlessness on the pitch.

“It’s so good when you are on the pitch, your confidence is so high and you want the ball all the time,” he says.

“You want to play all the time because everything is going well.”

Tom Williams / AFP / Expatica