The suspicion that Manchester United were unable or unwilling to compete for the world's best players will be emphatically dispelled should they complete the £22m capture of Juan Sebastian Veron from Lazio.
Premiership recruits from Italy have tended to be players past their best, like Gianfranco Zola, or those who were never world-class talents, such as Fabrizio Ravanelli. By aiming for Veron, however, United are at last poised to live up to their self-proclaimed status as the world's biggest club by prising one of the Italian game's principal assets from a leading Serie A club long before his sell-by date.
The 26-year-old Argentinian will be expected to provide the fantasy element to United's play that has arguably been lacking, or at least diminished, since Eric Cantona's sudden retirement in 1997. Though Veron operates as an orthodox playmaker rather than floating between midfield and attack like Cantona, there are distinct similarities in temperament and image as well as in the capacity to change the angle of attack with a 50-yard volleyed pass.
Like the Frenchman in his Old Trafford pomp, Veron sports a shaven head and an earring, plus a tattoo of Che Guevara as indeed does Diego Maradona. He also has a similar habit of speaking his mind, as Sven Goran Eriksson can testify. England's Swedish manager, who had paid Parma £18m to bring him to Lazio, was stung by Veron's public criticism of his selection and tactics after the Roman club were beaten in Europe by Feyenoord.
Veron's father, Juan Ramon, played on the left-wing for Estudiantes de la Plata when they overcame United in an ill-tempered World Club Championship match in 1968. Veron Snr was nicknamed "The Witch"; some accounts say he owed the epithet to bewitching footwork, others to a stylistic similarity with another great Latin footballer, Raul Belen. His son is known as La Brujita the Little Witch.
Juan Sebastian, who has scored six times in 41 appearances for his country, also started with Estudiantes, moving on to Maradona's beloved Boca Juniors before Sampdoria lured him in 1996. He only stayed a season in Genoa before switching to Parma for £10m and, while he scored only three goals in his first two Italian seasons, Eriksson had no hesitation in adding him to his Argentinian colony in the capital in the summer of '99. Lazio went on to collect their first championship in 26 years.
His arrival at United would certainly spice up Sir Alex Ferguson's options. A formidable athlete, blessed with pace and technique, Veron would probably slot in alongside Roy Keane in central midfield. Keane could never be dismissed as a mere ball-winner, but his abrasiveness makes him the ideal foil for Veron.
The deal also signals the likelihood that David Beckham will continue to play on the right rather than at the heart of the United side. Like Beckham, Veron is predominantly right-footed but, as befits the son of the sorcerer of La Plata, more than adept with his left.Reuse content