It would be unfair to burden Nani with quite the same expectation of emulating close friend, countryman and former United team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo upon his return from the World Cup in 2006. But there is a definite sense that United's Portuguese winger has turned a corner in his development and will press on to become a truly top player this season.
He has lived with comparisons to Ronaldo ever since he arrived at Old Trafford. They are different players (perhaps only slightly, but crucially) and different people too. Ronaldo is an extrovert (Never! Really?), while Sir Alex Ferguson last season described Nani as "a shy boy".
The circumstances after this World Cup are different, of course. The backlash from England’s World Cup exit in Germany suited Ronaldo's me-against-the-world characteristics: he already responded to getting kicked in games by dusting himself down and going again, but his experience post-World Cup 2006 was the ultimate crunching challenge – and the way he dealt with it was the making of him as a player. His performances between 2006 and 2008 were earth-shatteringly good.
For a start, Nani didn’t play in the World Cup in South Africa this summer. A collarbone injury put paid to any involvement in the tournament. It's a shame because I personally believe that Nani would have announced his arrival on the game's most global stage as one of the competition's stars. But the disappointment at being denied that platform, I am sure, will only spur him on this term. Plus, you could put forward a legitimate case that he was United’s best player in the final few months of last season, scoring four goals in his final seven outings of the 2009/10 campaign.
United assistant boss Mike Phelan said in an interview earlier this year that "the penny has dropped" with Nani. His performances in the second half of last season showed maturity, vastly improved decision making, consistency, and an ability to influence key games – he was outstanding against Bayern Munich at Old Trafford (scoring twice), and got the crucial goal against Tottenham in the league. Most importantly, he looked like he was really enjoying his football. That's bound to bring the best out of any player.
There's an expectation at United that demands excellence without compromise. The manager sets the tone, the players are