Owen Hargreaves could be the only new face at Manchester United, while a host of top clubs chase 17-year-old Gareth Bale
A team jersey with a name on the back is a popular order in club shops at this time of year. A shirt left blank is causing intrigue in Manchester. When Henrik Larsson was paraded at Carrington last week, it was revealed he will be Manchester United's new No 17. Now it could just be that Larsson likes sevens, having worn the digit at Celtic and Barcelona, but is there another reason why he is not, as expected, taking the iconic 10 jersey vacated by Ruud van Nistelrooy? "I might surprise you again," said Sir Alex Ferguson, with a glint, when the question of further transfers was raised. It was tempting to put two and two together and come up with a new United No 10.
Ferguson has told confidants he will not buy Fernando Torres or Miroslav Klose and poked fun at a reporter who wrote he had his eye on Darren Bent. Jermain Defoe to Old Trafford is a chestnut that, unlike those consumed at Christmas, is as popular as it is indigestible all year round. United have watched Ajax's princely young poacher, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but he is not ready to leave Holland. So who could it be? Perhaps, indeed probably, in the wake of Larsson arriving, nobody. With Giuseppe Rossi back from Newcastle, and Alan Smith and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fit again, Ferguson has a platoon of back-ups for Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha.
"United's new No 10" is, nonetheless, one of a stadium-load of subjects that will keep people postulating and prattling right through the January transfer window. It's that most wonderful time of the year again if you're an agent, sports editor or simply love football gossip, and we're not talking about Yuletide. A personal bet is that if Ferguson is up to something it involves Owen Hargreaves. All had gone quiet regarding the midfielder, who broke his leg in September but is almost back to fitness, until he gave an interview revealing his almost touching, possibly new-found, yearning to be close to Bolton, site of familial roots. Then last week Bayern Munich's football director, Uli Hoeness, sought to reiterate his club's determination to keep Hargreaves.
"Nothing is going to happen during the winter transfer window," he said. "We have to play Real Madrid in the Champions League and we are not going to weaken the team." However, reports bearing "Hargreaves going nowhere" headlines neglected to include what Hoeness went on to say: "If, at some point, we find someone who can replace Owen, who perhaps costs less than we would get for him, then maybe we would think about it." The door for Hargreaves is ajar. It is thought a bid exceeding £17m might force it open. Following a spell when the old boy seemed to have lost his senses (David Bellion for £2m anyone?), Ferguson is back on form in the transfer market. His recent buys are impressive and, Larsson apart, have involved making, then sticking, to strategic decisions about which players can improve United over a number of seasons. Hargreaves is a long-term target.
Ferguson may bid for Gareth Bale, Southampton's wonderkid left-back, on a similar basis. Bale, with his ability on the ball, bravery as a defender and brilliance at set-pieces, could be Gary Neville with a dash of David Beckham, although there are slight doubts about the youngster's speed over short distances. He has 18 months left on his contract and with Southampton's parachute payments ending in the summer, and a return to the Premiership vital, Bale's club may be tempted to cash in. Arsenal are examining Bale and Liverpool like him, though with a starting price of £3.5m that could rise above £7m if there is an auction, he is understood to be too expensive for the Anfield club.
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