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The Portugal international turned in a match-winning performance to see the Red Devils through to the FA Cup quarters but the damage to his Old Trafford career may already be done

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By Jonathan Birchall at Old Trafford

In his sixth and final season at Old Trafford, Cristiano Ronaldo, the greatest player on Earth, looked to the summer knowing that he would in all likelihood become the most expensive player in football history. His job at Manchester United, the club with whom he had fallen in love, was done.

Twelve months before his eventual move to Real Madrid in June 2008, the Portuguese made his intentions clear: next stop Spain and the life of a Galactico. With 42 goals in a single season and a Champions League winner's medal to boot, it was time for United to replace the irreplaceable.

UP FOR THE CUP
NANI DOWNS READING
PLAYER RATING

Replaced the injured Jones shortly before half-time and took no time in making his presence felt. Hit the post with a rasping volley before testing Federici from distance. Deserved his goal and topped off a dominant performance to set up Chicharito's headed goal.
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GOAL!!! Manchester United take the lead at Old Trafford! Valencia attacks Shorey and picks out Nani just inside the area. The Portuguese star controls the ball, allowing it to bobble up for him before smashing a volley into the bottom far corner. Lovely finish.
In hope and expectation, eyes turned to Nani. The Portuguese winger, so raw but with skills honed at Sporting Lisbon's Alcochete academy that not only drew comparison to those of Ronaldo but at times looked like shameless imitation, was lined up as 'the new Cristiano'. Unfairly or not, the Cape Verdean was the man who would be king of the Stretford End.

But the coronation never came. United, with ever-thinning patience, are still waiting for Nani.

As such, the winger's destruction of Reading at Old Trafford in the FA Cup fifth round only adds to an ever-curious courtship between player and club.

As with his Premier League debut, also against Reading six seasons ago, Nani came on under the shadow of a worrying injury. In 2007 Wayne Rooney's broken foot paved the way for the youngster to be introduced, while on Monday night at the Theatre of Dreams, an ankle knock to Phil Jones, which consequently saw him leave the stadium on crutches, allowed the winger his first United appearance since February 2.

It was one in which Nani, consistently inconsistent, would dominate. Despite a wayward first couple of touches, the 26-year-old soon set the tone for his evening, crashing a sublime volley onto Adam Federici's far post before forcing the Australian into a parry moments later with a swirling effort from the right channel.

Coupled with Antonio Valenica on the right flank, who alongside United's other winger, Ashley Young, has also shown a troubling dip in form this term, the former Sporting star sprinted, swayed and struck with confidence belying what has been his worst season in England. Days after being left shaken following a car crash with a police officer, Nani was in cruise control.

BOOTS TOO BIG TO FILL

NANI v RONALDO AT MAN UTD
RONALDO GAMES, 2007-08
RONALDO GOALS, 2007-08
NANI TOTAL GAMES
NANI TOTAL GOALS
NANI TOTAL ASSISTS
49
42
212
39
51
His goal, United's opener, was clinically hit after yet another link-up with Valencia, while his ball for Chicharito's header past Federici not long after provided an overdue reminder of just how talented a winger the Premier League leaders possess in the Portugal international. In celebrating his goal, Nani pointed to the back of his shirt in front of the Stretford End. A reminder, perhaps, that he is in fact still here.

But only just. Having grown frustrated with the winger's performances, Sir Alex Ferguson looked to offload Nani to Zenit St Petersburg last summer, only for his exorbitant wage demands to stifle a move.

And this season has only seen the relationship worsen. Lifeless showings against both Liverpool and Everton in the league, as well as a Capital One Cup defeat to Chelsea for which the Scot blamed the winger after he lost possession prior to his side conceding a crucial penalty, have become sadly typical.

Off the pitch, an alleged training-ground fight with reserve-team player Davide Petrucci is also said to have put a huge strain on relations between the 26-year-old and his manager.

Inter, Juventus and Roma have each expressed an interest in signing the wide man, whose contract at Old Trafford expires in less than 18 months' time. The growing sense at Old Trafford is that he will not see it out. Like Ronaldo, it may well, regrettably, be time to move on.

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In the early stages of his Old Trafford career, Nani lived in his compatriot's mansion as he acclimatised to England and its football. But by the time that his former housemate had left for the Spanish capital in 2009, the then-22-year-old, about whom Barcelona had enquired following their Champions League final win over Sir Alex's side, was ready to make his own way at United.

"I know a lot of people compare me with Cristiano but I don't want that because I'm different," he told the Daily Telegraph three and-a-half years ago. "I want to hear people speaking about Nani, not saying things like 'look, he does that like Cristiano' ... I want to be the man."

Yet, to date, after over half a decade in Manchester and including the opener against Reading, Nani has three fewer goals in total than the man whose shadow he was so desperate to escape scored over a single season in 2007-08.

But to compare the incomparable was never really the point. The great regret over Nani at Manchester United is not his failure in replacing Cristiano Ronaldo. It is that he risks being remembered for so little else.

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