One certainty in the football maelstrom: it wasn't angst or panic which crossed the weathered face of Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday when Juan Sebastian Veron, Christian Vieri and Joe Cole, a £41m job lot, moved a step nearer to enlisting in the Chelsea legion of Roman Abramovich.
It was the sadness of that little death that comes to a football man, however successful, when one of his pet dreams goes awry. That is what Veron, whose transfer from United to Chelsea was agreed between the clubs at a fee of £15m, represented to Ferguson. To know quite how passionately, you only had to cast your mind back to a warm afternoon two years ago.
Then, young Roman was merely tempting crack ice hockey players to his bailiwick beyond the Urals. Ferguson was looking for an extra dimension, and after an easy early-season ransacking of Everton he believed he had found it. He purred at the majestic touch of Veron in midfield and the authority of Laurent Blanc in the middle of defence. "We need something more in Europe," the manager said. "We are good at home, as strong as ever, but I want more subtlety, I want that thing Veron and Blanc gave us today. Sometimes in Europe we can be a little naïve. This will help a lot."
Ferguson happily agreed that Blanc had looked so nonchalant he might have been walking a poodle down the Champs-Elysées, and Veron had several times made a mockery of Everton's defence. Veron had class and vision, a marvellous creativity.
Or so it seemed. Now with Blanc retired and Veron a shop-soiled item moved at a loss of £13m, Ferguson is obliged to fashion new dreams. Of course they will stop short, for reasons both practical and philosophical. Far short of the Russo-King's Road fantasy.
As the master of Old Trafford has already indicated, he believes he has kicked around the game long enough to know that the Russian empire-builder is just as likely to be supplying the seed money for a disaster as a successful revolution. However, as Chelsea's shopping bill nears £80m, no one, not even Ferguson and English football's other outstanding operator, Arsène Wenger, can any longer ignore the phenomenon of a football dreamer with apparently unlimited resources... and will.
Ferguson's attitude is clear and, in classic football terms, utterly impeccable. Abramovich is acquiring a set of talented players. But they come without the guarantee of making a team. It will always be so. Talent makes great teams, but only in partnership with chemistry and character, and if there was a time when Ferguson and Wenger were obliged see the Chelsea threat in a new and menacing light it was surely yesterday when Vieri appeared to be packing his bags for London.
The Australian-reared Italian is surely Abramovich's most serious business so far. A major force in the world game when Ruud van Nistelrooy was still a glint in Fergie's eye, Vieri is just 30 and still has the force and the ambition and the fighting character to justify an old description of him as a "coach's dream."
Beside the talented but fitful and self-serving Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Vieri's approach to the game is doubly attractive. If the Chelsea coach, Claudio Ranieri, is truly in or around the centre of his club's extraordinary expansion, there is no doubt he has acquired his best means so far of pleasing his driven paymaster. You could begin to build a team around a Christian Vieri. It is something that simply cannot be said of any of the other £58m worth of investment.
Joe Cole, despite the sentimental ire of East London, cannot be begrudged his place on the big stage, no more, ultimately, than West Ham can be flailed for the decision to sell him in the face of the reality of their situation. How they managed to squander their place in the Premiership, how they systematically undermined their own strength, is quite another matter, but in the realities of today Cole's move was as inevitable as a bird leaving a nest. How well he will fly is merely a six million dollar question - just a dribble of roubles from the Czar's swag, but when you consider the rest of the Chelsea intake it is one that quickly multiplies.
Damien Duff has beautiful talent, but is he a winner? How will Wayne Bridge and Glen Johnson handle new and unprecedented pressure? If Veron from time to time continues to show a sublime touch, would you want him to be the key influence in your midfield? Ferguson gave him that chance at Old Trafford and suffered a thousand pinpricks of disappointment.
Veron inflamed the competitive instincts of Roy Keane, reportedly provoking an attack from the Irishman the Monday morning after a piece of negligence which some said cost United the title. For every time Veron offered the stars, there was another occasion when he was overtaken by whimsy. He flirted with greatness but wasn't economic with the ball. His tackling was nominal.
That was the deepest sadness of Ferguson yesterday. He may have mourned again the loss of Ronaldinho, a player of genuine creativity, another lost candidate to supply that dimension for which he hankers so keenly. But the manager of Manchester United also knew his strength. He has a squad of winners, and still the most formidable collection of experience and ability in the land. That is something no one can put a price on. Not, for the moment at least, even Roman Abramovich.
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