Ferguson and Ronaldo meet as United aim to buy time

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The Independent Football

The battle to keep Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford may yet be won by Manchester United when it emerged last night that the Portuguese winger had a meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson in Lisbon at the start of last week. Sources in Portugal have indicated that Ronaldo, currently recovering from an ankle operation, met with the United manager to discuss his future.

It was widely denied that Ferguson had been to Portugal last week; in fact, the Scot was understood to have postponed a trip. However, it emerged that he did meet Ronaldo, although details of their conversation are not in the public domain. However, it would seem that the player's crass claim that he was a "slave" to his contract - made to a television crew last Thursday – came after the meeting with Ferguson. For that reason it would be too early to assume that Ferguson was able to obtain any promises from his star player that he would not continue agitating for a move to Real Madrid in the immediate future.

A more realistic view would be that Ferguson was prepared to sanction a transfer in one year's time. Either way, that the meeting took place would demonstrate that relations between Ferguson and his self-regarding prodigy are not quite as bad as had been thought.

It is understood that United officials were dubious about just how vital it was for Ronaldo to undergo ankle surgery this summer. Some assessments said that the player could have delayed for up to 12 months without any major detrimental effect on his performance.

Nevertheless, the United manager was in good spirits yesterday when he departed - without the injured Ronaldo - for the club's pre-season tour of South Africa and Nigeria. The assumption had been that Ferguson had not seen the player face-to-face since he departed to join up with Portugal's Euro 2008 squad in late May. Now at least it seems there has been contact which will give Ferguson some cause for relief as he heads off for the trip, which lasts until 28 July.

Ronaldo himself has been in Los Angeles over the last few days, a place he evidently believes suitable for his new profile. In the meantime United's long-term pursuit of Dimitar Berbatov is understood to be snagged on the problem that the European champions have offered Tottenham Hotspur a deal comprising cash plus a player that they value in total at around £25m. Tottenham have rejected the deal and told United that they want to be paid in cash for their star striker and that they value him at closer to £30m.

Ferguson raised the stakes yesterday in his attempts to sign the 27-year-old when he said that United had "made a bid for one player who would enhance us a great deal". He did not name Berbatov but he did not have to; United have identified the Bulgarian international as the man to fulfil the role of an out-and-out centre-forward. Roque Santa Cruz is regarded as a back-up target behind Berbatov.

United's approach of offering a combination of a player and money demonstrates a more parsimonious attitude to transfers than they have entertained in the recent past when they laid out big cash fees on signings such as Rio Ferdinand, Juan Sebastian Veron, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney. Tottenham are also trying the same approach and were understoodto have made a bid for David Bentley last night. Blackburn have said they would like Aaron Lennon plus cash for Bentley, but Lennon has told Spurs he is not interested in moving to Ewood Park.

It would seem that Spurs will have to offer cash for Bentley, which will make them just as determined to be paid in cash for Berbatov. The future of Robbie Keane remains unresolved with his deal to Liverpool still uncertain, but Spurs are confident of concluding deals to sell Younes Kaboul and Pascal Chimbonda.

There was no Owen Hargreaves on the United trip, he has suffered a recurrence of the knee problem tendinitis he suffered from last season. Having missed most of last September and October with the same problem, Hargreaves will stay in England for treatment. "It was apparent as soon as he came back to training," Ferguson said. "It is the same as last year. Some people get these things. Maybe restarting training on the firmish grounds brings it on, maybe it is just an inherent problem.

"We are trying to sort it out now with injections. That is what we did last November and it worked. Hopefully, these work and by the time we come back from South Africa he should be OK. Owen is not written off for the start of the season at all."

Ferguson said he regarded the Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans as a straight replacement for Gerard Pique, sold back to Barcelona this summer. "We are back to the same numbers," he said. "If we got one more it would strengthen us further."

United play Kaizer Chiefs in Cape Town tomorrow and there is a reserve tam game at Oxford on 26 July for those left behind. Louis Saha, not thought to be the man offered as the makeweight in the Berbatov deal, is having treatment for an injury in France.

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