By Piers Barber
There can be few finer ways to conclude a debut season than how Anderson finished his 2007/08. With the year’s Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea down to a penalty shootout, United’s new playmaker strutted up to Petr Cech and calmly slammed home the first sudden-death kick, a finish that propelled United towards one of their most memorable triumphs of recent years.
It was a moment that hinted at a potential career of genuine quality demonstrating technique, confidence, and a winning mentality. Anderson, it seemed, could be the real deal – he could become United’s very own Ronaldinho. You don’t win the coveted Golden Boy trophy handed out to the best young talent in the world (previous winners include Rooney and Messi) for nothing.
Yet things have not gone according to plan for United’s second Brazilian signing. It is now six years since the former Porto player signed for the club, a period longer than the Old Trafford careers of revered former stars such as Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Dwight Yorke. In that time he has made just 175 appearances including just five this term.
His has been a career marred by persistent injury setbacks, dire fitness levels and extended runs of poor form. In recent years, the sight of a puffing, haggard Anderson being hauled off after an error-strewn 60 minutes has become all too common. He risks it becoming the defining image of his time in football.
And yet it could have all worked out so differently. A year after United’s Champions League triumph, Anderson hammered home what proved to be the decisive penalty in the League Cup final and also notched twice in the Champions League semi-final against Schalke in 2011. The likes of Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas (he left a steamer on his chest) have all come off second best to Anderson in games when the Brazilian has fully hit his stride.
At his best, he is a player of bustling and brave box-to-box drive, a dominating and combative presence and with his beaming grin, flailing dreadlocks and penchant for a comedy moment, a genuine fan favourite. Very occasionally, Anderson has appeared custom built to dominate United’s central midfield.
His failure to nail down a place in the first team has never been more bemusing than this season when the defining feature of United squad’s has been its lack of central midfield options. For David Moyes, Anderson has never represented the solution to his side’s most pressing problem. Indeed, defenders and players in their 40s have had more luck getting selected to start in central midfield than the grinning Brazilian. When he has been offered a chance to impress, opportunities have repeatedly passed him by. In his last league start, at home to West Brom in September, his ineffectual showing contributed significantly towards his team’s meek 2-1 defeat.
Anderson has repeatedly stated his heartfelt determination to rectify his United career. The formidable start to the season made by Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, another highly-tipped midfielder who had previously struggled to make an impression on the league, suggests such a transformation is always possible, but Anderson’s struggles with fitness and injury makes such change seem increasingly unlikely.
This year must surely represent the Brazilian’s last chance to turn around his career. If he fails, his time at United will be remembered as one of poignant missed opportunity and as one of the more regretful cases of unfilled potential in United’s recent history.