Yesterday was an officially styled "day of reflection" in Barcelona ahead of the club's presidential election, and should have been one of anticipation in Madrid before this evening's local derby between Atletico and the title-chasing Real. Instead, the capital was caught up in characteristic intrigue as Real's coach, Vicente del Bosque, declared that he expects to be sacked whether or not his team make up a one-point deficit on the league leaders, Real Sociedad, in their final two matches.
That adds a further complication to David Beckham's presumed desire to join them now that bridges between Beckingham Palace and Old Trafford appear to have been well and truly burnt.
Although the coach at a Spanish club traditionally has less say about new signings than his British equivalent, it would send a spanner clanking into the works if Del Bosque's successor happened not to be a fan of Beckham. The present incumbent is known to admire him, which he made clear yesterday in a jibe at Sir Alex Ferguson.
After admitting, "my guess is I'm not going to continue - I suspect they may have taken a decision already", the lugubrious Del Bosque added: "They say I've made some tactical errors. But I've never done what Sir Alex Ferguson did and left a player like David Beckham on the bench in a quarter-final of the Champions' League."
United were eliminated by Real in that tie, despite Beckham eventually coming on to score two goals in the second leg. The Spanish team's defensive deficiencies were then underlined again as Juventus swept them aside in the semi-final, bringing heavy criticism upon the coach's head. His contract expires when the Spanish season finally grinds to a halt next weekend, but even adding a second league title to the European Cup successes of 2000 and 2002 seems unlikely to save him. The writing was on the wall when Real officials met Arsenal's Arsène Wenger in Paris last month, a week after their club's defeat in the Turin semi-final. Wenger decided to stay at Highbury, but as ever there will be no shortage of candidates to join the world's most glamorous club.
How many of them would want Beckham, possibly at the expense of a more urgently needed world-class central defender, remains to be seen. Yesterday the great Alfredo di Stefano, hugely respected though no more than a figurehead these days, said: "If I had the money, I'd sign him." The much more influential managing director, Jorge Valdano, sees Beckham playing in central midfield rather than challenging for Luis Figo's position on the right, and is therefore keen to offload a midfielder like Steve McManaman or Géremi, who spent last season at Middlesbrough, in part-exchange.
United prefer the Frenchman Claude Makelele, though the best outcome for them would be for Joan Laporta to win Barcelona's presidential election today and carry through his agreement to take Beckham to Catalonia for a fee of between £25m-£30m. For all their financial strength - second only to Real, according to a Rich List in World Soccer magazine - the English champions cannot resist that sort of money for a 28-year-old who could walk away for nothing in two years' time. At a stroke, it would provide Ferguson with funds for virtually all his summer strengthening, turning Wenger and Arsenal green.
Final opinion polls before the traditional "day of reflection" that precedes any election in Spain put Laporta narrowly ahead for the first time in a brilliantly judged campaign, prompting him to claim: "I have complete confidence in being able to see David Beckham in the blue and red of Barça. Beckham is the logical consequence of our project, the strength of which has given us the upward curve in the polls."
Lluis Blassat, who is promising a coaching dream-team of Ronald Koeman from Ajax and the Catalonian hero Josep Guardiola, was left to lament: "I'm afraid the members will vote thinking about just one name." The best that the four other candidates could come up with was a wild claim by Jaume Llaurado that Real already have a pre-contract with Beckham, signed on 12 May.
So the delicious prospect of Beckham playing for Barcelona against United in Philadelphia on 3 August and then against Manchester City as their new Commonwealth Stadium is officially opened a week later remains possible. The stumbling block is the player's preference for Madrid and the Champions' League. In fact, a year away from the rigours of that competition in a season running up to England's hoped-for participation in Euro 2004 might be the best thing for the national team and its captain; but he has yet to be persuaded of it.
If he remains adamant about rejecting Barcelona, and with the two Milan clubs apparently out of the running (though Ferguson is famously suspicious of anything the Italians say), United are in something of a bind, entirely dependent on Real upping their projected bid from £14m plus an unwanted player. Beckham's father, Ted, having revealed that Ferguson has not spoken to his son "for months", a return to Old Trafford, with the battle of wills and media circus that would ensue, is impossible to contemplate. As it is, the first journalist to ask the manager a question about Beckham will deserve a citation for bravery, risking not so much the hair-dryer treatment as the flame-thrower.
Once Ferguson returns from holiday in France - where he was understandably furious to be disturbed by a television crew on Friday - he will be desperate to get on with sorting out his squad ahead of a dauntingly busy pre-season programme. United's players report back for training in three weeks' time, and only a fortnight after that depart for the United States and four high-profile friendlies, already sold out, against Celtic (22 July in Seattle), Club America of Mexico (27 July in Los Angeles), Juventus (31 July in New York) and Barcelona (3 August in Philadelphia). The following seven days bring a trip to Portugal to open Sporting Lisbon's new stadium, and the Community Shield game against Arsenal in Cardiff.
If United are to have the four or five new players they want bedded in before their defence of the Premiership title begins, it is essential that Beckham's future is sorted out quickly. Unfortunately, what will suit Real is to drag out negotiations until the transfer window is about to close and the deadline for Champions' League registrations is looming - as they did with Ronaldo's move from Internazionale a year ago. Real deal or not, Ferguson will have to keep his nerve to avoid another tactical error.Reuse content