Ferguson rules out United bid for Ballack

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The Independent Football

There was an uncharacteristic openness about Sir Alex Ferguson as he confirmed an interest in Michael Ballack and dismissed the Bayern Munich midfielder as a viable transfer target in the same breath, though only converts to blind faith would have accepted the Manchester United manager's explanation for his U-turn on the Germany captain yesterday.

Ferguson rarely acknowledges the existence of a potential new signing, let alone provides an insight into his transfer strategy, but yesterday, sitting in the same chair at United's Carrington training ground where seven days previously he had discussed Roy Keane's contract situation while the Irishman cleared out his locker, he revealed that Ballack was no longer a priority either for January or when his Munich contract expires at the end of this season.

United officials have been in negotiations with representatives of the 29-year-old for several months, and a pre-contract agreement had been prepared in readiness for 1 January and a move to Old Trafford next summer. Five weeks before Ballack can commit to another club, however, Ferguson has publicly withdrawn his interest, citing the need for a more defensive-minded midfielder and Wayne Rooney's role within his team as reasons why he can do without one of the most sought-after players in Europe.

"We have considered Michael Ballack quite a lot in the last few months because we knew his contract was up and so we spoke to his people," the United manager revealed. "But in essence - and he's a terrific player, a fabulous player - he plays mainly in the area where we play Wayne Rooney. You cannot include Roy Keane in the equation at all simply because the position Michael Ballack plays in is nowhere near where Roy played. The priority has always been to replace Roy Keane - we've been talking about that for two or three years. The difficulty is getting one."

Ferguson's conclusion that Ballack would not end his exhaustive search for a replacement for Keane is entirely valid, but does not dispel the suspicion that United have been forced to lower their ambition in the transfer market since the Glazers' takeover and that the Bayern captain shares the assessment of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, his president at Munich, that Real Madrid will be a more attractive proposition after the World Cup.

The United manager, reverting to form, refused to elaborate on his midfield alternatives, although the claims of Deportivo La Coruña's Aldo Duscher and St-Etienne's £10m-rated Didier Zokora have not been undermined by the admission that he is seeking experienced players or those who are eligible for European competition. Ferguson explained: "I am not going to be specific about it but we are targeting one or two at the moment. There are two categories, players who are emerging and doing well as young players, plus seasoned ones." He added: "You should never guarantee January as a buying time because the players we would like are all cup-tied. They are all in Europe, and any team who is doing well in Europe is not going to sell, especially to Manchester United. You are eliminating a big percentage of players you would be looking at. There is the January window but the summer window also."

United will have both Gary Neville and Louis Saha available tomorrow when they go in search of a third successive League win at West Ham, though Kieran Richardson is a doubt with an ankle problem.

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