Martin Samuel: Selling the best never makes you stronger
So, where is the player who will score 67 goals for Manchester United in two seasons? That is the virus which was sold to Real Madrid yesterday. A match-winning virus, a free-kick taking virus, a virus that propelled one club back to the pinnacle of English, European and world football. Symptoms: extraordinary goals from outlandish range, courageous headers, wonder dribbles, invention, imagination and a deadball technique that redefined the art. Yes, the money, £80million, is good, but it needs to be. United have traded their main man to a serious rival. There is no precedent for this, no moment in history to call upon and place the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo in comforting context. ‘Remember when we sold the best player in the world, and it made us stronger?’ No, because that never happens. Never has and never will. A comparable moment occurred when Juventus parcelled up Zinedine Zidane for Real Madrid in 2001, but it does not make for reassurance. Zidane won the Champions League at Madrid in 2002, Juventus lost the final in 2003 and have never been a force in Europe since. It is hard to conceive that United will fade as suddenly, but Ferguson must also replace what remains of the golden generation in the twilight of their years. Ronaldo was intended to be the shining star of this next United era so supplanting him, and them, will be Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest test yet. Ferguson kept Ronaldo for as long as he could and, exasperated that there was no resolution to his yearning for a move to Real Madrid, reluctantly agreed a sale. That does not mean he has a guaranteed answer to the problem of his replacement, though; more that he finally realised keeping him at Old Trafford against his will was no way forward. United did not achieve this season what they had last. Ronaldo had not hit the same consistent form and his goal total was reduced by 17. If he dipped again, United could be vulnerable in domestic competition, too. Ferguson decided to take the money and rebuild from there. He will have ideas but little that is rock solid, and nothing that will yield 67 goals from midfield. The best clubs do not lose their best players. Ferguson knows that, too. It is why he fought so hard to keep Ryan Giggs from the Italians 10 years ago. When United missed out on the talented teenager John Mikel Obi in controversial circumstances, it was decided that Chelsea should pay them £12m in compensation. This was considered steep, but not by United. ‘We would rather have had the player,’ sniffed a source at the club. There is pride involved, as well as hard cash, so it is unlikely that the rumours of a long-standing arrangement between United and Madrid are true. When Ferguson spoke of renewed speculation surrounding Ronaldo at the Club World Cup in December, it was with the manner of a man in a position of strength. He called Madrid a ‘mob’, said he would not sell them a ‘virus’. Something changed to alter his mind-set. Too many vague answers about Ronaldo’s future, perhaps, too many sentences left dangling. Maybe Ferguson recalled the havoc that the uncertainty around Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry had wreaked at Arsenal. It would not have been simply the carrot of £80m. Ferguson knows he could spend every penny of that and not bring 67 goals in two seasons to his club. The candidates under discussion now — Carlos Tevez, Luis Antonio Valencia, of Wigan Athletic, even the world-class Franck Ribery, soon to leave Bayern Munich — are not in Ronaldo’s class as goalscorers. Buying all three would as good as wipe out the transfer kitty and that is before Ferguson has devised a way of fitting them in. Tevez scored 15 goals last season, but only five were in the Premier League, while Valencia scored just three in all competitions for Wigan and Ribery scored 14 (nine in the Bundesliga) for Munich. Ronaldo, meanwhile, scored 25 times, was missing until late September with injury and generally considered to have disappointed, by his standards. The previous year he scored 42, which would have blown away his trio of replacements combined, in either year. That season Tevez and Ribery scored 19 goals each and Valencia his usual three, including two in one game against Aston Villa. If anything, the nearest in potential impact may be Karim Benzema, whose last two seasons for Lyon have yielded 54 goals; still short of Ronaldo, though, and in a considerably weaker league. Florent Malouda scored 12 goals in his last season in French football (with Lyon) and three in his first season at Chelsea. Losing Ronaldo is not comparable to selling Ruud van Nistelrooy or David Beckham to Madrid, either, because neither man was on the upswing of his career. Ferguson had tired of Van Nistelrooy’s attitude and Beckham’s celebrity trappings when he cashed in, much as he has grown irritated by Ronaldo’s wandering eye where Madrid are concerned. Yet nobody doubts that United had the best of Beckham and Van Nistelrooy. The same is not true of Ronaldo. Lionel Messi may be about to steal his individual crown, but Ronaldo’s performance against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last month suggests there could be a few more rounds in this prize fight yet. It is quite possible that the 42-goal season is not the peak of Ronaldo’s career, that he might be inspired to fresh heights at his beloved Madrid. If he is, with Barcelona also in the ascendancy, United could again be relegated to also-ran status in the Champions League, as happened soon after their triumph in 1999. These are troubling times. It is ironic that, in the weeks leading up to United’s appearance in the Champions League final in Rome, it was said Ferguson’s team were approaching invincibility and now, with the sale of just one player, the same group are regarded as vulnerable. This is testament, however, to Ronaldo’s influence. Even last season when he failed to maintain constancy, he remained the most significant player. When he was at his best, as against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final, second leg, United looked unstoppable; when he lost his way, as happened against Barcelona in the final, so did the team. After that game Ronaldo criticised United’s tactics, selfishly oblivious to the fact it was his presence that frequently forced Ferguson to realign in Europe. Brilliant he may be, but Ronaldo was never one for tracking back, so Ferguson mapped out a way of playing in European competition that placed Wayne Rooney in the wide role, dropping to create a five-man midfield, with Ronaldo deployed as a central striker. Now, at least, Rooney can revert to the role in the middle that he prefers. He is deployed there by Fabio Capello, the England manager, and is top scorer in the European section of the World Cup qualifying groups, equalling Gary Lineker’s record of 10 goals in one season for England. So a centralised Rooney is one option for United, a colossal spending spree another. Are they 67-goal solutions, though? Hardly. As Ferguson will reluctantly concede, he has sold Madrid a virus that is not at all catching.
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