United's platform a busted flush in face of City riches
Rooney stand-off was an early sign that Ferguson is in a battle he simply cannot win, writes Mark Ogden
It was 19 months ago that the light blue tide first became a crashing wave against the gates of Old Trafford and, regardless of whether the Premier League trophy ends today decked in blue or red ribbons, Manchester United face a battle to keep their heads above water where Manchester City are concerned.
For all of Alex Ferguson's defiant talk of a response to the challenge laid down by their supremely wealthy neighbours, the reality is that United have been losing ground to City ever since Wayne Rooney's contract stand-off forced the club into a fight they simply cannot win.
Rooney's week-long poker game with United in October 2010, when the prospect of his defection to the Etihad Stadium forced the Glazer family to take the unprecedented step of speaking directly to the player to assure him of their determination to meet the City challenge head-on, ultimately ended with United keeping their prized asset, albeit in exchange for a mammoth pay rise.
But Rooney's battle of wills with United proved an early warning of the situation that they are now on the brink of facing and one which will become a grim reality should City secure their first league title since 1968 later today. Until City fluttered their eyelashes at Rooney, the distinction of playing at Old Trafford was Manchester United's unique selling point.
Other clubs would pay their players more than United, but inside Old Trafford, the approach was 'why pay top dollar when the privilege of playing for the team which wins the trophies outweighs the extra £20,000-a-week on offer elsewhere?'
It was a simple formula of platform versus money. United offered the platform for players to earn and win, while the rest could only come up with a healthier payslip. But when Rooney was tempted by City, it was a shock to the system at Old Trafford and they were forced to support the platform with money.
From that point on, it was only a matter of time before City eclipsed United in the race for the top players and, when Samir Nasri rejected United for City last season after being offered in the region of £70,000-a-week more to play at the Etihad, United's platform, their greatest attraction, became a busted flush.
If City become champions today, United will be faced with the nightmare scenario of their city rivals not only being the richest, but also the best. City now have the platform and it is built on mountains of cash.
United can still point to their history and tradition, but as Liverpool have discovered, those qualities count for little in the modern game when a player and his agent are looking at the bottom line. This is the challenge now facing Ferguson as he plots his squad strengthening programme this summer.
Ferguson's problem is that one of his targets, the Lille midfielder Eden Hazard, is also on City's hit list. If the Scot is able to deliver his sales pitch to the £35m-rated Belgian, how does he sell United ahead of City?
As Ferguson discovered with Nasri last summer, there is little that can be done to stop City's financial juggernaut once it begins to roll and Hazard already appears nailed on to move to the Etihad.
Luka Modric is highly-regarded by Ferguson and, with Paul Scholes leaning towards retiring again this summer, the Tottenham midfielder will be courted if United receive encouragement that a deal can be done.
Whether the Glazers will sanction a repeat of last summer's £50m spending spree remains to be seen due to their failure to launch their proposed £600m partial flotation in Singapore. However, the much-maligned Americans are fully aware that their asset must remain competitive, so necessity may force them to strengthen, regardless of the cost.
Such is Ferguson's determination to outfox City, however, great efforts are being made to keep his targets cloaked in secrecy. There may be red herrings and false signals, but that is because United are having to play a new game of cat-and-mouse to compete with City.
Ferguson and United can, in part, thank Rooney for that. His contract battle shattered the illusion that playing for United was a distinction worth more than financial reward.
City's success has dragged United back down among the rest and the danger is that Ferguson faces a period of having to accept second best whenever he goes head-to-head with Roberto Mancini in the transfer market.
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