Manchester United yesterday began talks with Samir Nasri's representatives, as their early summer activity continued to frustrate Arsenal and leave other clubs trailing in their wake.
The talks in Manchester were only exploratory, conducted among intermediaries from both sides, and did not include the Frenchman's agent Jean-Pierre Bernes. But United's willingness to open negotiations with a midfielder who appears to have concluded that he has no future at Arsenal suggests they may be ready to capitalise on an opportunity in the transfer market. The 23-year-old, who was superb in the first half of last season, will fall out of contract next summer and will therefore come cheap – possibly as little as £8m.
United hold a fair number of the cards if their interest firms up. Chelsea have indicated that they are not interested in signing the player, who joined Arsenal in 2008, but it is understood that he does want to stay in England. With United's £17m deal to sign Ashley Young set to be completed by the weekend, Nasri appears to be just one of a number of options. The prospect of Wesley Sneijder moving to Old Trafford from Internazionale remains a genuine one.
Neither can a move for Tottenham's Luka Modric be ruled out, even though Chelsea may offer competition for him. United are keeping their options open, with the past 48 hours underlining Sir Alex Ferguson's resolve to do far more than merely tinker with his squad as he sets about getting closer to the standard Barcelona attained in last month's Champions League final. There has, as yet, been no official approach from United to Arsenal about Nasri. The losers in the Nasri saga are again Arsenal, who had retained some hope that he would be willing to give them first refusal on his continued services and consider any new deal they put before him when he returned from international duty. Nasri was left out of the France squad that played Poland last night.
But Nasri, evidently dissatisfied by the events of last season, feels that he will not collect silverware by staying in north London and had sanctioned yesterday's discussions. It would be a bitter blow for Arsène Wenger if United do take the Frenchman, in the week that he lost Blackburn Rovers' Phil Jones to his old adversary, Ferguson – despite several phone calls made in an attempt to wrest him out of United's grasp.
Nasri's departure would also leave Arsenal more in need than ever of holding on to Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard's departure to Barcelona is slightly less likely this summer than last, but just as Nasri's representatives arrived in Manchester yesterday, the usual summer noises from Catalonia began, linking Fabregas with the European champions. Arsenal would sell him if they receive an offer of at least £45m.
"He's a great player and he's a player from Barcelona because he already knows the language we speak on the pitch," said Gerard Pique on a day when the Spanish papers were full of talk of Fabregas finally returning to Barcelona. "He is a great friend of mine and of course I want him to end up wearing the Barcelona shirt." Fabregas is expected to holiday in Ibiza this summer with Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, as he did last year.
The prospect of Nasri simply positioning himself for an improved six-figure deal at Arsenal cannot entirely be ruled out. Wenger has said of the player: "One thing's for sure – we're not selling him to Manchester United." But Nasri responded to that on TF1's Telefoot on French television at the weekend. "Let's find out if their interest is true first," he said. "Then we'll talk about it. I don't know if I will sign a new contract. Anyway, the discussions are ongoing. Do I want to go to United? We should see if their interest is real and if it is concrete first."
Arsenal respect Nasri and believe he would not try to negotiate a better deal publicly. The contracts of both Nasri and his compatriot Gaël Clichy expire next summer and the club hope to tie them to five-year deals worth £90,000-a-week.
Though there are suggestions that Arsenal may be ready to move for Bolton's Gary Cahill, a Modric move to Chelsea would be by far the greater statement of intent. Chelsea are also understood to be planning to retain the services of Didier Drogba.
Sneijder is not understood to interest Chelsea, and the Dutch playmaker also appeared eager to cool talk of a move to Manchester yesterday, describing his life with Internazionale in Milan as "beautiful and picturesque". "At Inter, there is a family atmosphere, and there is every reason to aim high," he said. "Milan is beautiful, picturesque. Elegance reigns, and I love it. At the moment I am very happy here, I do not see why I should go."