Real Madrid's coach, Carlos Queiroz, said yesterday that Thierry Henry and Ruud Van Nistelrooy would be his top two preferences in the summer transfer window. Given Real's tendency in recent years to identify one world-class player each year and then entice him to the Bernabeu, Queiroz's remarks are bound to set nerves jangling at Highbury and Old Trafford.
Arsenal have already rejected a reported £50m offer for Henry from Chelsea but would be bound to consider any bigger sum from Real. They would find the income useful in their quest to fund a new stadium. And despite Henry saying in a recent interview that he had no interest in joining Real, attitudes tend to change as interest hardens. If Arsenal fare poorly in the remainder of this season's Champions' League and Jose Reyes starts to make a big impact, the unthinkable could become more likely.
At United, Sir Alex Ferguson is sure to want to retain Van Nistelrooy, who recently signed a new contract to keep him at Old Trafford until 2008. The lure of Spain will always turn heads, though, and if the player became distracted by the attention, United might prefer to sell for a massive profit on their original £19m investment and look elsewhere for reinforcements.
The Spanish media are convinced that Real's big-name target this year will either be Arsenal's French striker, United's prolific Dutchman or Roma's captain, Francesco Totti. The Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, has avoided commenting on the speculation but Queiroz revealed his own feelings in an interview with sports newspaper, Marca: "At the moment, I don't believe Totti would be a priority player for Real Madrid," Queiroz said.
"If I had to give my preference I'd go for Van Nistelrooy and Henry. They've both reached maturity. Besides, the Frenchman is at the moment at the peak of his powers both."
In the past four years Real have signed Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham, four of the biggest names in world football, and Perez is widely expected to continue the trend this year.
The consolation for Arsenal and United fans is that Queiroz's comments are unlikely, in themselves, to indicate a move for either Henry or Van Nistelrooy. "They're interesting as opinion but irrelevant as substance," said one seasoned local observer last night. "Queiroz has about as much input in choosing players as you or I. It's a one-man decision and that man is the president. The way things are run at Real, Queiroz might not even be the coach of Real Madrid in the summer. Unless he wins the treble, it wouldn't that surprising if he was on his way before any new players come in."
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