United lose the race for Ronaldinho

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The Independent Football

Who says the French do not like going to war? Certainly not Manchester United, who following weeks of tortuous negotiations with Paris Saint-Germain, have lost out to Barcelona in the race to sign Ronaldinho.

The midfielder agreed to join the Catalan club yesterday on a five-year contract in a £21million transfer which can now fall through only if the Brazilian fails a medical.

United had issued a deadline of 6pm BST yesterday for their approach to be accepted but PSG issued a statement one hour before that time in which they confirmed they had accepted a bid for Ronaldinho. "We accepted the Barcelona offer because it was better," said the new PSG chairman, Francis Graille, "and that includes the financial structure."

It is thought that Manchester United's offer involved a combination of cash and their goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, an option that did not appeal to the French club. Graille said he did "not wish to reveal the details of the negotiations", but it became clear that Barcelona's bid did not include any players.

Late yesterday afternoon, Barcelona revealed they had been in advanced negotiations with Ronaldinho's brother and agent, Roberto Assis. "We are finally in agreement," the Barcelona spokesman, Juanho Castillo, said, "and we are expecting the player over the weekend." In the event, the deal was sealed, subject to a medical, last night.

The announcement of Barça's deal came at the end of a dramatic day. The game of poker had been going nowhere when, in a double bluff, the Premiership champions issued a statement yesterday morning saying that "unless an agreement is reached by 7pm Central European time [yesterday], Manchester United will withdraw from the process".

It was a nice try by United, but PSG were in the driving seat by then, having accepted the £21m bid from Barcelona late on Friday. It meant that by the time the threat had reached Graille, Ronaldinho was already on a plane from Brazil to Spain to talk over personal terms with the Catalan club. United's bluff had failed.

The 23-year-old's decision to sign for Barcelona marked a change of heart from the player whose agent and sister, Deisy, told this newspaper last week that "Ronaldo wants to join the Premiership champions at all costs". Perhaps he was keeping his options open as long as possible.

The same might be said of Damien Duff. The Republic of Ireland international was in London yesterday to undergo a medical at Chelsea, but it is believed he is trying to hold off signing for the London club until he is sure United are not interested. The midfielder is keen to stay up north and a move to Old Trafford would suit him better.

Duff may now get his way, as United will be desperate to put the Ronaldinho débâcle behind them and sign a high-profile replacement for the departed David Beckham. Having missed out to Liverpool in the pursuit of Harry Kewell and Blackburn Rovers for Brett Emerton, Sir Alex Ferguson knows he must capture a big name to appease the fans and cannot afford to fail again.

The £17m required to trigger the release clause in the Blackburn man's contract is well within the United budget and, judging by Ronaldinho's behaviour during the transfer saga, Ferguson may be better off signing Duff.