Real Madrid got a striker they do not
need: Liverpool received ?8m and a midfielder they probably do not want,
but yesterday Arsenal clung on to their soul.
Patrick Vieira joked on the club's end-of-season video that the summer
would probably see him linked with another move to Real Madrid. It
indeed witnessed the third and most determined attempt to prise
Arsenal's single-most influential footballer from Highbury and everyone
from Arsene Wenger to the player himself thought it would succeed. Real
Madrid will almost certainly not try again.
In contrast, Madrid yesterday completed the signing of Michael Owen for
?8m plus the midfielder, Carlos Nunez. Of all the summer contract
negotiations involving Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Vieira, Owen was
thought to be the one most likely to commit himself to his existing club.
Instead, the former European Footballer of the Year is the one to have
Real Madrid, who have never really recovered from the loss of the
rock-like Claude Makelele from an already unbalanced midfield, would
unquestionably have preferred Vieira to Owen, who will have to compete
with Ronaldo, Fernando Morientes and Raul for a starting place. The Real
coach, Jose Antonio Camacho, is now likely to compete with Liverpool for
the signature of Real Sociedad's defensive midfielder Xabi Alonso.
Camacho is entitled to fancy his chances of winning that race.
Vieira was in fact agonisingly close to quitting. "There were only a few
small things to sort out and I have to admit I was thinking about myself,"
he said. On Thursday, he came to a decision, informing first Thierry
Henry, his closest friend at the club, and then travelling over to
Wenger's house in north London.
By the stratospheric standards of top-level European football, Real are
by no means enormous payers - Owen will earn ?500,000 a year less than
the ?3.6m salary Liverpool had offered - but Wenger rejected the
suggestion that this was why Vieira had opted to stay.
"There was no problem of money between Arsenal and Real Madrid and no
problem of money between Real and Patrick. It was one of the few
occasions in our sport that money has played no part in a big story such
"We opened the door for him to make a free choice. It was a dangerous
thing to do, I know, but it would have been even more dangerous to stop
him if he was really committed to going.
"I must say I had genuine fears he would go. I had tried to stay
positive with my own statements but in the last few days he had looked
determined and resolute and it looked like we might lose him. So when he
came to my house last night and told me he had decided to stay, it was a
Not least of the Arsenal manager's fears was that both the ball-winning
midfielders he could employ to replace Vieira - Edu and Gilberto Silva -
would be required regularly for Brazil's World Cup qualifying campaign.
The prospect, he admitted, was "frightening".
Wenger argued all summer with his captain that he would find it easier
to achieve his ambitions at Highbury than at the Bernabeu. "Real Madrid
are a great club and, historically, bigger than us but, frankly at the
moment I don't see a big difference."
This was a strategy that at Anfield Rafael Benitez was simply unable to
deploy. Knowing Liverpool could not allow Owen to run into the final
year of his contract and leave for nothing as Steve McManaman had done,
Benitez claimed he had no choice but to sell the club's most
recognisable and, arguably, best footballer.
"For me, it was easy," Benitez said. "He had only one year on his
contract and Madrid called. We had waited one year and two months for [Owen
to sign] a new contract and we knew that Real Madrid knew this. It was
impossible to control the situation."
The Liverpool manager claimed that Nunez, a right-sided midfielder,
would add "balance" to the team, although it is hard to believe he would
not have preferred Samuel Eto'o or Morientes. His predecessor, Gerard
Houllier, furnished Anfield with plenty of middling midfielders and
Nunez, who is very much a fill-in player, is not noticeably better than
Danny Murphy, whom Benitez sold to Charlton for ?2.5m this week.
This summer three England internationals have left Anfield and now Real
have as many Englishmen in their likely starting line-up as Liverpool -
two. Benitez was, however, stung by accusations he had contributed to
Liverpool selling their inheritance.
"Look at Arsenal, they were 30 points clear of us and how many English
players do they have? If you only have English players, maybe you only
end up playing for fifth place. Sometimes, if you want to win, you have
to buy [Didier] Drogba, Deco or Eto'o." But he has not bought Drogba,
Deco or Eto'o, he has acquired a Real Madrid reserve.