United's response to losing Ronaldo? A free punt on an injury-ravaged striker
Manchester United have not been shy in declaring that ?80million has just landed in their bank account from Real Madrid, but they went quiet last night when it emerged that their response to selling Cristiano Ronaldo could be the surprise acquisition of Michael Owen. Even if such a deal actually makes a lot of sense, it is unlikely to appease fans desperate to see Sir Alex Ferguson ease the sense of loss caused by the departure of the world's best player. They wanted David Villa, Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema. They never wanted Ronaldo nor Carlos Tevez to go. But last night they were bracing themselves for the arrival of a 29-year-old former Liverpool striker whose injury problems have convinced Fabio Capello to freeze him out of the England squad. Ferguson cannot get caught up in such an emotive debate. He has to assess where his squad need to be strengthened. He has to recognise his goalscoring options have been severely depleted and decide whether it is worth bringing in someone who might have had his problems but has a proven track record. If Owen passes a stringent medical, it could turn out to be a sensational piece of business: a player still the right side of 30 and prepared, in this era of massive transfer fees and enormous wages, to sign for buttons. A player so keen to show he still has much to offer, and so keen to secure a place on Capello's plane to South Africa next summer, that he will accept a pay-as-you-play deal. Nevertheless it reflects where United are at in a week when Ronaldo declared, in an interview, that he is irreplaceable. 'I'm a one-off,' he said. He does appear to have a point when Ferguson's search for a new true No 7, United's iconic shirt number, is beginning to look so hopeless and when the major transfer targets of just about every major club in the Barclays Premier League are heading not for England but for Spain. The reason may lie in something Ivan Gazidis said recently when the Arsenal chief executive argued that player salaries had fallen out of line with the extraordinary transfer fees now being paid. As distasteful as it seems in these difficult financial times, Gazidis essentially suggested that the English - with the exception of Manchester City - were lagging behind. The ?130,000 a week Chelsea pay their top earners has begun to look like peanuts. Kaka, Ronaldo and just about every member of world football's elite are not flocking to Spain because the football is suddenly more desirable. They are going because the Spanish are chucking crazy money at what they considered a major problem. While Madrid are miffed by the success of Barcelona, the Premier League's position as the dominant force in Europe - which saw three English clubs in the semi-finals of the Champions League yet again - is something the Spanish have decided to tackle by simply raising the bar. Ronaldo has all but doubled his money to move to Madrid and so, it is safe to assume, have others. Italian clubs cannot seem to compete at all. With attendances in Serie A lower than the Championship in England, they would risk financial meltdown if they tried to keep pace with the Spanish. For a club like AC Milan, champions of Europe only two years ago, it must be distressing. Kaka has gone and so has Carlo Ancelotti, while Alexandre Pato could follow his former manager to Chelsea. When Kaka rejected City in January, the leading English clubs no doubt felt more secure in the knowledge that it still takes more than simply money to attract big names. But the Spanish giants have the history, tradition and a record of success as well as the funds to sign up the superstars and the English clubs appear to have been caught by surprise . . . even if nobody is quite sure where Madrid's cash is coming from. Understandably, some are starting to panic. United are poorer for losing Ronaldo and the message boards on fans' websites reflect the sense of anger and despair. Antonio Valencia? It just ain't doing it for the United faithful. Ronaldo has been allowed to leave in his prime and so many major transfer targets - Benzema among them - are rejecting Ferguson's advances. Ronaldo is confident the United boss will pull a rabbit from a hat. 'He has lost big players before but has gone on to even more success,' he said. 'I fully expect big names to arrive this summer.' Owen is a big name but perhaps not what Ronaldo, indeed anyone, had in mind.
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