Manchester United’s now infamous Champions League tie with Real Madrid was a fixture that promised so much, but was unfortunately cut down in its prime – or at least after an hour – due to a refereeing decision that is still widely debatable as to whether it was correct or not.
Although it was not the type of match that will go down in European folklore in the years to come as a classic contest between two of the continent’s footballing superpowers, it perhaps deserves pride of place in the annals of history for creating some of the most far-fetched and misinformed transfer stories of all time.
First came the theory from the back pages that a combination of Sir Alex Ferguson deciding to bench Wayne Rooney for the second leg in addition to the 27-year-old being caught smoking a cigarette earlier in the season, equated to a rift between manager and player, that would lead to the England man being thrown on the transfer scrap-heap in the summer.
There are mitigating circumstances which could provide some truth to the wild rumour, even if the hypothesis was developed on seemingly superficial evidence. As it stands, Rooney has just a year left on his contract, and at the age of 27, with the United forward clearly having reached the limits of his abilities over the past few seasons, now would be the time to sell.
But the second story which came out following the Champions League clash between two of the competitions heavyweights is far more ludicrous and absurd – the notion that Cristiano Ronaldo is set for a summer return to Old Trafford.
The Portugal international’s diplomatic efforts to make sure he wasn’t burning any bridges and at the same time paying homage and respect to the club that made him the player he is today, in addition to the fans which supported him , have been distorted beyond proportion, with the Newspapers reporting around Christmas that Ronaldo is ready to ‘come home’ back to Manchester – with those two words being the only quoted evidence of such a claim, provided by an anonymous source – and the story re-emerging yesterday in The Express.
I hate to be the crusher of dreams, but although every Premier League fan would like to see it happen, and every United fan would love to see it happen, it will almost certainly not be happening.
It is not a question of money or resources. Sir Alex Ferguson will be given a war-chest of £160million for the off-season transfer window, and with the Scot already quashing allegations of a summer clearout at Old Trafford, he is expected to invest heavily in a small handful of new recruits, whilst the infrastructure of the first team will remain similar to this season.
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Of course, Sir Alex is certainly not incapable of telling a white lie or subverting the truth in press conferences, but it makes sense not to overload a sailing ship simply because one has the ability to do so. Similarly, although there have been question marks over the futures of all of United’s wide men, with Ryan Giggs defying the effects of ageing, Nani’s attitude coming under question and Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young having quiet campaigns, the United gaffer is not the type of manager to let one season of mediocre form determine whether or not to cut a player’s Old Trafford tenure short.
Furthermore, £15million has already been invested in Wilfried Zaha, and it is unlikely Fergie will allow the Crystal Palace winger to wallow in the club’s development squad for a year, when he has already done enough to prove he is capable of performing consistently amid a division of highly competitive, good quality football. I’m not suggesting it’s a case of ‘who needs Ronaldo when you’ve got Zaha’, but Sir Alex is a manager always concerned with moving forwards rather than backwards.
There is also the old adage of the dangers of resigning a former player. Although Ferguson would never rule out bringing one of the two of the world’s most elite players to Old Trafford based on that principle alone, you can easily see how Ronaldo’s already arrogant personality could evolve into a destructive God-complex should he turn up to save the day. United’s successes this season have been based around team-work, with Chelsea and Manchester City arguably both possessing greater quality on paper, and a goal-hungry, glory hunting Ronaldo would not be befitting of the current mould. Over the years, Ferguson has gone to great lengths to maintain that no player is bigger than the club itself, and resigning Ronaldo endangers that belief.
But is not the United side of the transfer that will stop a deal from taking place. The Red Devils may have won the title this season, but they are not in a position of considerable power. Their consistency is well known from one year to the next, but there will no doubt be a backlash from City, Chelsea and Arsenal next season, with all boasting considerable funds to further improve their squad over the summer.
Similarly, they may have been unlucky to have lost a Champions League quarter-final essentially based upon a refereeing decision, but in comparison to the final four of the European tournament, the Premier League champions are rather limp in terms of quality.
The fact is, Manchester United need the transfer more than Ronaldo does. At Real Madrid, he’s become an icon, with a goal record of 199 in 196 competitive games. He is amid a roster that is arguably the most talented in Europe, containing talents such as Mezut Ozil, Luka Modric, Iker Casillias, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo and Xabi Alonso, with the prospect of Gareth Bale arriving in the summer. United’s star cast, limited to Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick in terms of whom could stake a claim for a place in any team in world football, is a long way shy.
Similarly, the former La Liga champions have made it to three successive Champions League semi-finals, whilst the Red Devils have struggled on the continent since Ronaldo’s departure in 2009, excluding their final defeat to Barcelona a few years ago. It sums up how since the Portugal international’s decision to move to Spain, the Premier League has dwindled in terms of quality.
Although the depth and breadth of talent is still as widespread as ever, the English top flight has lacked a marquee individual to stake a claim for it being truly the best division in world football, and similarly, our top clubs have fallen behind the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid – unquestionably the top three forces in world football at this moment in time. Even Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez, our two saving graces that are not at the wrong end of their twenties, are both rumoured to be heading for the exit door if not this summer then the next.
Right now, Real Madrid remains the hotter ticket. Much has been made of Ronaldo’s love of the Premier League, his fondness of Manchester United and vice-versa. But when it comes down to it, transfer decisions are rarely made on personal preference. It’s about playing at the highest level, to the best of your abilities, with the highest chance of receiving noteworthy accolades in the form of silverware, and currently Madrid outweighs the Red Devils in all three departments. Furthermore, and most importantly, if Ronaldo is to ever prove that he is equal to or better than Lionel Messi, he must remain in La Liga, to provide the same conditions, variables and circumstance, and not dilute the debate with an auxiliary discussion over the quality of the Spanish and English top flights.
As a neutral, welcoming Ronaldo back to the Premier League would be a joy to behold. It would change the whole complexion of the division, and furthermore become a beacon to attract further quality at the top end. But all in all, it would be a step backwards for the Madrid man. He’d leave a team of exceptional players to join a team of above average ones, and he’d leave a club on the cusp of success for one that is arguably not even the best in the Premier League. It quite simply does not make footballing sense, and it will almost certainly not happen.
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