Nani needs more love at Manchester United, says Braga boss
Manchester United hardly have a mountain to climb here tonight, even though the players must scale four flights of steps from the subterranean dressing room simply to reach the pitch, which is hewn out of the side of a granite peak.
Nani may feel that he is on a rock face though, as he ponders a possible return for United against a Braga side managed by the man who first saw a talent in him and actively discussed it with Sir Alex Ferguson before United paid Sporting Lisbon £17m for the winger five years ago. The 25-year-old's peripheral role for Ferguson, reflected in the figures on the new contract he has rejected, is not what the player expected when he eyed the prize of becoming United's next Cristiano Ronaldo following his compatriot's departure to Real Madrid in 2009.
Braga's ebullient coach, Jose Peseiro, who plucked Nani out of Sporting's Under-18 side and cast him into the first team, said yesterday that the player was the kind who needed more encouragement than this – "an embrace and support" as he put it. "I know him," Peseiro added with a grin. "If he doesn't play, it is not easy for him. He doesn't feel well when he doesn't play – because he likes to play. All players have different personalities. Sure, the English players don't need too much support, but the Portuguese, Brazilian and Spanish players need more emotional contact. Sir Alex Ferguson can't speak differently to him than to the others. But I know some players need more. Nani needs more, I think."
There is surprise across Portugal that the boy from Cape Verde, who has started only six of United's 13 games this season, should be on the margins. The leading authorities on Paulo Bento's national side cite him, and not Ronaldo, as the better performer for them. Certainly, Nani's unwillingness to heed Ferguson's requests and sign the new deal is in danger of committing him to obscurity at Old Trafford.
Sources close to the player say that an amicable meeting between the two a month ago concluded with the United manager telling Nani that he had to select his teams with an eye to the future, not on a player who would probably be gone by next June – 12 months before his contract expires.
Nani is also said to be motivated by money, so an approach from Russia might not ultimately be discounted, even though the only offer on the table this summer, from Zenit St Petersburg, was rejected. But you imagine he would feel better about United at the moment had not Antonio Valencia – who offers more consistency and versatility – and Ashley Young – a lesser threat – gradually eclipsed him.
"I don't know if the problem is that he doesn't sign another contract," Peseiro said. "I don't know if the coach has less confidence in him, or if he just doesn't feel right at this moment. I know that after Ronaldo left Manchester, [Nani] had two or three fantastic seasons. Manchester depended on him. At this moment it isn't the same. But a player can only play at the maximum level when he's happy. If he's not happy, he can't."
Peseiro was certainly happy at the prospect of receiving United at his club's breathtaking, two-sided stadium, designed by the renowned architect Eduardo Souto de Moura and spanned by steel structures inspired by Inca bridges. Yesterday marked the 26th anniversary of Ferguson driving south from Aberdeen to take the Old Trafford job, but asked if he would be bearing gifts Peseiro said his team "don't want to give anything to Sir Alex Ferguson".
Of course, there was deference for a man whom Peseiro has met five times – Ferguson's former assistant Carlos Quieroz is the mutual friend – and an awareness that United are seeking qualification for the knockout stage, which a win tonight would deliver. But Peseiro has his team playing what locals in Portugal's third city call romantic, passing football. "Our team has one philosophy, with players for that," said a manager whose side led 2-0 at Old Trafford before losing 3-2. "We never feel afraid." Admittedly his defence doesn't always look as divine.
United have not won their first four group stage games since 2007-08, the year they were crowned champions, and Ferguson said he has made good on his promise to learn from last year's group-stage elimination by "paying more attention to team selection". He cited the presence of Javier Hernandez, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney against Braga at home. But United's fright that night, taken with their desperate display in Cluj, suggests that it has not been a procession for them on the continent. Not a mountain in their way, perhaps, but certainly a sizeable object.
United are only English team who can rule Europe, says Ferguson
Sir Alex Ferguson declared last night that he possesses the squad to meet the challenge of the three other sides he believes could win the Champions League: Barcelona, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund.
The Manchester United manager, who said that Chris Smalling may play his first football of the season at Braga tonight, believes that Jürgen Klopp is setting his sights on the Champions League after falling 11 points behind the Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich.
"You can't go by Real Madrid and Barcelona, that's fair to say, and I do think Dortmund will be about the Champions League this year," Ferguson said. "Those three teams have outstanding chances and I hope we can join them because we have a good squad of players."
Phil Jones will be back training on Monday, Darren Fletcher has missed the trip with a cold and Paul Scholes has an extended rest. "I'm just thinking of an old man, that's all," said the manager.
Kick-off 7.45pm, Municipal Stadium
TV Sky Sports 4
Referee F Brych (Ger)
Odds Braga 2-1 Draw 12-5 Man United 13-10