Michael Owen appeared to be finalising his move to Real Madrid last night just as reports from Spain suggested that the protracted transfer of Patrick Vieira to the Bernabeu had broken down.
Owen may even be paraded as a Real player later today or tomorrow after a fee of between £8-9m was agreed and Liverpool will also be able to take a player from Real after all. But it will not be one of the big names. Instead Rafael Benitez, who had wanted Fernando Morientes, will choose between the young midfielders Juanfran and Carlos Nunez - and is believed to have plumped for the latter. Neither are first-team players at Real. The fee for Owen may eventually rise depending on his success in Spain.
The speed of the deal has been breathtaking and is in sharp contrast to the saga surrounding Vieira. Earlier yesterday it had appeared that he too would be signed by the weekend, but Arsenal aggravated Real by suddenly asking for an extra £3m on top of the £23m transfer fee which had thought to have been agreed for the newly-named captain of France. In addition Arsenal are understood to have offered Vieira a new contract with a two-year extension, with vastly improved terms, which, according to sources, would put him on equal pay with the club's highest-earner Sol Campbell, who is paid more than £100,000 a week. Indeed, the wages offered by Real were a problem as the club were refusing to rank Vieira alongside their big earners such as David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane. His pay would have been comparable to his current Highbury salary which is about £65,000 a week.
Last night sources at Real were indicating that the transfer of Vieira was "dead". But nothing has been that simple in this saga. At the same time, and to complicate matters further, Real may now make a late attempt to scupper the proposed £11m transfer of Real Sociedad midfielder Xabi Alonso to Anfield. He was thought to be set to sign today but Real have already had one bid rebuffed and regard Alonso as their second choice to Vieira.
Liverpool are also believed to have agreed a fee of £6m with Barcelona for the right winger Luis Garcia, although that deal, too, may have been altered by last night's events. What is certain is that they will not sign striker Samuel Eto'o, who was part-owned by Real Madrid until he signed for Barcelona yesterday for around £16m. Real had wanted him to go to Liverpool and although Benitez had favoured a move for Morientes he would have happily taken the Cameroonian. However, Eto'o insisted that he went to Barcelona.
Nevertheless, the cash for that transfer will pay for the purchase of Owen. Real have been amazed at the alacrity with which the 24-year-old England striker wants to sever his 13-year association with Liverpool. His father Terry, along with agent Tony Stephens of SFX, was in Madrid yesterday to conduct negotiations and made plain that Owen was keen to move. Indeed, the impetus has come from the player, and Liverpool have been eager to offload him since talks over his new contract broke down last week.
Although Real had not been seeking to sign Owen - the initial approaches are believed to have come from SFX during Euro 2004 - they realise the value of the player to them in playing and commercial terms. He could become the latest galactico - and a cut-price one at that. Hard questions will need to be asked at Anfield as to why Owen was allowed to run down his contract.
His relationship with Benitez has not been harmonious and the new Spanish coach, who earlier this week sold Danny Murphy to Charlton Athletic, is keen to generate cash so that he can stamp his own mark on the squad.
Owen's Liverpool team-mates certainly think he is leaving. Jamie Carragher said yesterday: "We obviously want Michael to stay, but you cannot have a go at the lad if he moves on. You look at Real Madrid and they are maybe the most special club in the world."
FROM CHESTER TO THE BERNABEU
1979: Born 14 December, Chester.
1991: Breaks Ian Rush's goalscoring record for Deeside Primary Schools in north Wales after he had previously beaten Gary Speed's record as the youngest player to play for the team.
1995: Beats goalscoring record of Kevin Gallen and Nick Barmby for England Under-15s.
1996: Helps Liverpool win FA Youth Cup in May. Signs professional terms with Liverpool on 17th birthday.
1997: 6 May - Scores on his first-team debut against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park.
1999: 18 September - Scores twice at Leicester as he completes 90 minutes for the first time after return from hamstring injury.
2001: 26 September - Signs new four-year deal with Liverpool.
2002: 28 September - Emerges from a barren start to season with hat-trick against Manchester City.
2003: 26 April - Scores 100th Premiership goal, the second of four in a 6-0 rout of West Brom.
24 September - Breaks Ian Rush's club record, scoring his 21st goal in European competition against Olimpija Ljubljana in UEFA Cup 1-1 draw in Slovenia.
2004: 15 May - Scores 15thgoal of season in 1-1 draw with Newcastle at Anfield.
June - Overshadowed by Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004, despite scoring once for England.
9 August - Hitch in contract negotiations opens speculation of transfer to Real Madrid or Barcelona.
12 August - Sources close to Real reveal the Spanish club have agreed to give Liverpool £8-9m and Carlos Nunez or Juanfran for Owen.
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