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After a remarkable year, Portugal winger Nani hopes to mark his 50th cap in style against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Friday's UEFA EURO 2012 play-off first leg in Zenica.
Having emerged from Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow at Manchester United FC, following his Portugal team-mate's move to Real Madrid CF in 2009, Nani – who made his international debut in September 2006 – is eager to continue shining for his country, having been ever-present in their EURO Group H qualifying campaign.
The former Sporting Clube de Portugal midfielder also played a major role in United's 19th English title triumph last season, his third in four years, and with nine goals and an unrivalled 18 assists, his influence upon Sir Alex Ferguson's side was reflected by further recognition: United's players' player of the year award for 2010/11.
"Nani had a fantastic season," Sir Alex said of his 2007 signing. "
He is only in Ronaldo's shadow because he is Portuguese. That is the only link I can see. He was never in his shadow in my mind. He has always had great potential but some players take longer to mature than others."
If Nani has come into his own since Ronaldo left Old Trafford, he also enjoyed two of his best national-team nights in the winger's absence as Portugal booked their 2010 FIFA World Cup place with 1-0 wins in both play-off legs against Bosnia and Herzegovina. With Ronaldo injured for those November 2009 games, Nani rose to the challenge, setting up each clinching goal – Bruno Alves's in Lisbon and Raul Meireles's in Zenica.
It was another declaration of independence from a player who does not welcome comparisons. "I am Nani and not Cristiano Ronaldo," he once said. "I don't want comparisons because our style of play is different."
With Portugal now bidding to reach a fifth consecutive UEFA European Championship in the play-offs, Nani will attempt to have a similarly dramatic impact this time around. He turns 25 two days after next Tuesday's second leg in Lisbon and, having missed the 2010 World Cup with a collarbone injury, will hope he has reached the perfect age to prosper in Poland and Ukraine.
"I thought this was going to be my World Cup," he lamented last summer. "I was training and playing well, but that's life." Having grown in stature as a player since, Nani can only anticipate that bigger and better opportunities lie ahead.
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