ALEX Ferguson has stepped up his interest in Lille midfielder Eden Hazard by going on a scouting mission to watch the £25million-rated Belgium international.
Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, who is expected to be without Brazilian Anderson for the rest of the season because of a suspected torn hamstring, spent Saturday evening at Stade de Gerland as French champions Lille suffered a 2-1 defeat against Lyon.
Ferguson has held a long-standing interest in Hazard, but Tottenham had been favourites to sign the 21-year-old, who has also been monitored by Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City.
However, with Ferguson determined to avoid a repeat of last summer's failure to add an attacking midfielder to his squad, when moves for Samir Nasri and Wesley Sneijder both ended in disappointment, the Scot is keen to identify targets for an early raid in the transfer market this summer.
Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, speaking to French media at the weekend, conceded that United had emerged as serious rivals in the race for Hazard.
"Our owner is ready to pay for an exceptional talent like Eden Hazard," Redknapp said. "But I know United are also following him very closely. Manchester City too, so it will be difficult to sign him."
Having been handed his Lille debut as a 16-year-old in November 2007, Hazard was dubbed 'Little Messi' by then-coach Claude Puel because of apparent similarities in the player's attacking play from the right flank. But Hazard was also urged to show "more charisma" by former Belgium coach Dick Advocaat to realise his potential.
Ferguson's decision to reinstate Paul Scholes to his squad following the 37-year-old's retirement about-turn in January has highlighted the need for a long-term replacement for the veteran, however.
While Athletic Bilbao's Iker Muniain was hugely impressive during his team's 3-2 Europa League victory at Old Trafford last Thursday, the Spain international has said he has no desire to pursue a move away from his present club.
A move for Hazard could be eased with a victory for the Socialist party in the forthcoming French elections because of calls by their presidential candidate, Francois Hollande, for a 75pc tax rate on millionaires.
Should such a proposal be implemented, it is expected to spark an exodus of leading talent from the French league.
United's pursuit of Hazard, if successful, could harm Anderson's attempts to claim a regular place at Old Trafford, five years after arriving from Porto.
The 23-year-old has made just 16 first-team appearances this season due to injuries and, having returned to the fold for the first time since January 8 with a substitute outing against Bilbao, is now awaiting the result of scans on a hamstring injury sustained in training.
There are fears the injury could lead to Anderson being sidelined until the end of the season.
Meanwhile, United winger Ashley Young claims that the pressure in the Premier League title race is still on City, even though Ferguson's team reclaimed top spot on Sunday.
The two clubs meet at the Etihad Stadium on April 30, but having emerged unscathed from a recent run of games including clashes with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham, Young believes United have overcome their most testing period of the campaign.
He said: "We said that if we came through the tough away fixtures then we would set ourselves up for the rest of the season. We've managed to do that away from home and our home form is key now.
"A lot of people might not have said that we'd be in front of City, but we've got the belief that, as long as we're winning our games, the pressure's on them."