Whatever happened to the next Ronaldinho?
Any Manchester United player is only ever a spat with Sir Alex Ferguson away from the exit door at Old Trafford - even the most influential, like Roy Keane, David Beckham or Jaap Stam. At least those three were able to leave distinct marks on the club's recent history before clearing their lockers, but you hope that the latest to find himself in danger is not done yet. Anderson Luis de Abreu Oliveira doesn't turn 22 until April, but after a recent fine for an unauthorised stint back at home in Brazil while injured, the vultures are already scripting his obituary.
Porto moved first for Anderson in 2005, seduced by the tremendous impression he made with Brazil in that year's Under-17 World Championship in Peru. He had already scored the goal that had seen Grêmio promoted back to the Brazilian top-flight after an ignominious relegation. His origins threw up unavoidable comparisons, with his most famous predecessor taking the same route through the ranks into the first-team at the club some six years earlier. That was one Ronaldinho Gaúcho, and Anderson had made it into the Grêmio first-team a full two years younger than the 2004 and 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year, who debuted in 1998 at the age of 18.
Despite the links, the comparisons were a little dubious. Anderson was always more direct than Ronaldinho. He was a man in a hurry in every sense, having little time for ball tricks. He shot past defenders in the blink of an eye, ready to unleash the next incisive pass. This correspondent saw him in the flesh for the first time in September 2006 when he was beginning his first full season in Portugal, against Estrela da Amadora in a sparsely-populated Estádio da Luz. After an uninspiring first-half, Porto swept home in the second 45, with their brilliant young playmaker pulling all the strings. Anderson crowned his display by creating the third goal, speeding from halfway and through the visiting defence before laying an open goal on a plate for his captain, Lucho González.
He made his Champions League debut three days later in a home match against CSKA Moscow. The visitors' goalkeeper led a charmed life as Anderson announced his arrival on Europe's biggest stage in emphatic style. He ripped the CSKA defence to shreds, narrowly failing to crown a series of dynamic runs with a goal and seeing one thunderous first-half shot crash back off the post.
When it seemed like his star was inexorable, injury struck. In a clash with Benfica at the Dragão that October, Anderson broke his ankle in a 50-50 challenge with the blameless Kostas Katsouranis, putting him out of action for almost six months. He returned for the run-in and pitched in with a couple of vital goals, breaking the deadlock against Nacional and then equalising against Paços Ferreira in the season's penultimate match, as Porto came out on top in a thrilling title race, a single point ahead of Sporting and two in front of Benfica.
His influence was such that it's hard to believe that he made less than 20 league starts for the Dragons. That a judge like Ferguson was so keen to tie up a deal swiftly for the youngster, even at upwards of £20 million, said everything you needed to know about Anderson's maturity as much as about his potential.
Anderson's start at Old Trafford was extraordinary. Going virtually straight into the first team, he was employed in a deep-lying role in front of the defence, adapting swiftly to Premier League physicality in winning challenges and showing his accomplished distribution. Back in Porto, even Anderson's staunchest supporters were stunned by the development of this hitherto-unsuspected side of the midfielder's game. He was important in the retention of the title, and came on right at the end of extra-time in the Champions League final to score his spot-kick as the match went to penalties. He also nervelessly converted the winning kick in the shoot-out against Tottenham in the following year's League Cup final.
But by Wembley 2009, many seasoned Anderson watchers had started to seriously worry if he had permanently sacrificed his attacking sparkle via his efforts to adapt to his club and to the English game in general. The not entirely dissimilar evolution of Keane from the buccaneering forward runs of his Nottingham Forest days shows that this had happened before, but one could argue that Premier League-era United have simply never had room for a maverick genius in the centre any of their formidable midfields, something perhaps borne out by the failure of Juan Sebástien Veron. It is unlikely, however, that Sir Alex would feel a prodigiously gifted dynamo with the imagination to seamlessly blend midfield with attack is not something that could add to his side, particularly with both Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in the twilights of their respective careers.
The truth may be that Anderson's injury simply set him back more than we initially assumed. Despite his contribution to Porto's 2007 title, he came back from his convalescence looking (understandably) a touch sluggish, and as if he was carrying a few extra pounds. Being assigned a more defensive role at United gave him a chance to conceal these difficulties, and we have seen little of his old acceleration in England, and this can make the difference between a fine player and a truly epochal one. Just ask Ronaldinho.
His clash with Sir Alex has the rumour mill grinding, firstly linking the player with a move to Lyon before reports emerged that Paris Saint-Germain had unsuccessfully tempted him with a loan switch to the capital, but it's difficult to see how either French club could afford his reputed £80,000 weekly wage.
With the World Cup on the horizon, even a temporary move back to Brazil with Vasco da Gama has been mooted. Anderson is a tougher character than Robinho, and certainly doesn't need any mollycoddling, but what he does need is for Ferguson to find a way to unlock his inner Ronaldinho -to give him back that spontaneity that he so enchanted us with as a teenager. The prospects that would bring for United, Brazil and the Premier League alike are truly mouthwatering.