Plot thickens in Fergie chase for Torres

July 17, 2006

Sir Alex Ferguson has reaffirmed his determination to keep Cristiano Ronaldo but the Manchester United manager has received mixed messages about the availability of Fernando Torres.

The impending departure of Ruud van Nistelrooy is set to create a major vacancy in United's striking department and it is thought Torres is the man Ferguson will look to fill it.

Although the Spanish World Cup star has a £41million buyout clause in his contract with Atletico Madrid, United officials are confident they can land the 22-year-old for far less.

The exact funds Ferguson has available are not likely to be established until an agreement is reached with Real Madrid over a fee for Van Nistelrooy.

So far, the Spanish giants have failed to get anywhere near the £15million United are hoping for and the indications from Old Trafford remain they will not budge on their valuation, even though Ferguson has written the Dutch striker out of his plans for good following their massive end-of-season bust-up.

The problem for Ferguson is the longer the Van Nistelrooy saga drags on, the less likely Torres is to move.

`El Nino', as he is dubbed in La Liga, is one of the hottest properties in Europe and his strength and size appear to be ideally suited to Premiership combat.

However, there are conflicting signals about his desire to quit the Spanish capital, with his agent insisting Torres wants to stay and his coach believing he does not.

Atletico boss Javier Aguirre said: 'I looked Fernando in the eye and asked him if he could guarantee he would be here this season.

'He said he could not do that.'

Aguirre's observation directly contradicts the claims of Torres' agent Antonio Sanz, who insisted there had been no direct or indirect contact with United and, while there had been some interest from Italy since the World Cup ended, the striker's preference was to remain where he is.

'Torres has two years left on his contract with Atletico and then we will see what happens,' said Sanz.

'Neither us, nor the club, has received an offer from Manchester United, or any other clubs for that matter.

'After the World Cup, there has been interest from Italian clubs but not from English clubs, and there hasn't been anything concrete.

'The player's intention is to remain with Atletico.'

Although the likelihood of Torres joining United is open to considerable debate, the short term future of Ronaldo appears to be becoming much clearer.

The Portugal winger twice stated his desire to quit Old Trafford during the World Cup, claiming he could not return to Manchester because of the abuse he would receive in England for the part he played in Wayne Rooney's dismissal during their quarter-final confrontation.

But the 21-year-old's stance appears to be softening.

The clearest indication about his future plans will come on July 31, when he is due to return from a three-week break and, in any case, Ferguson is not contemplating a sale.

'Cristiano will definitely be coming back,' said Ferguson firmly, backing up the more forceful statement issued from Old Trafford last week.

However, two players who will be leaving the Red Devils, if only for a short time, are young defenders Gerard Pique and Johnny Evans.

Pique, currently on international duty with Spain at the UEFA Under-19 championships, has been on the fringes of United's first-team squad since his arrival from Barcelona two years ago, while Northern Ireland-born Evans is regarded as the best player to emerge from last season's Youth Cup side and is likely to feature in tomorrow night's encounter with Kaizer Chiefs.

For their respective developments though, Ferguson thinks a stint away from Old Trafford is required as the risks of defenders learning their trade in the United first team are just too great.

'You cannot expect young boys not to make mistakes, which is probably why strikers come through a bit quicker than defenders,' said the Scot.

'A forward can afford to make errors but, in defence, those mistakes cost you.

'By putting young lads out on loan, they get far more competitive football and also get exposed to the more physical part of the game.

'Hopefully, Johnny and Gerard will go out on loan and come back better players, just as John O'Shea did a few years ago.'