Belfast Telegraph

Manchester United move for Benfica stars to boost push for Premier League crown

By Ian Herbert

Manchester United have stepped up their interest in the Benfica midfielders Nicolas Gaitan and Javi Garcia.

The club have placed their discussions with the Portuguese side on an official footing in an attempt to prevent other clubs getting in ahead of them.

United have asked Benfica, who advanced from United's group into the Champions League knockout stage, to notify them of any moves from other clubs for either of the two midfielders, both of whom impressed in this autumn's fixtures against Sir Alex Ferguson's side.

Benfica have told United that Gaitan, 23, who has a £39m release clause, has been the subject of interest from Valencia.

Garcia, who has been widely linked to Arsenal and Internazionale, does not carry the impediment of a release clause though Real Madrid, who nurtured him as a youngster, do have first refusal on a player who has emerged as a candidate for Spain's Euro 2012 squad.

United scouts watched both Gaitan and Garcia at Benfica's recent matches against Naval and Sporting Lisbon.

Ferguson insisted yesterday that “it is not a consistent route for us to buy in January simply because of all the disadvantages” and Benfica have indicated to United that they will not encourage any transfers until next summer.

But Ferguson did not preclude the idea of reinforcing, as he did by signing Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic in the winter of 2006 after United's last Champions League group stage exit.

Though the United manager has options in central defence to cover for Vidic, who has been ruled out for the rest of the season with cruciate ligament damage, there are chronic problems in midfield.

Tom Cleverley will possibly not be back until well into the new year and Anderson is out until February. Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher have both struggled.

Garcia, 24, operates in front of the defence, though is a ball-player who also likes to advance and score — rather too much for the liking of Benfica coach Jorge Jesus.

Though United look like a side in need of a playmaker — the role Gaitan held at Boca Juniors before his £7.1m move in the close season — Jesus has deployed Garcia in a left-sided berth with which he is actually less comfortable.

The view from within Portugal is that Benfica may try to keep him at the club for another season if they win the domestic title.

Gaitan has already been the source of intense transfer speculation in Portugal, linking him to most of Europe's elite sides.

Ferguson's tendency to sign players who have performed well against his own club — Cristiano Ronaldo and Phil Jones among them — may have made the Argentine's display against United in September significant.

A new contract he signed in October keeps his release clause at £39m and it is considered unlikely that Benfica would be willing to accept less.

Meanwhile, Wolves boss Mick McCarthy has challenged axed skipper Roger Johnson to reproduce his early season form after recalling him for today's Barclays Premier League clash with Manchester United.

McCarthy confirmed Johnson will play and lead the side at Old Trafford after his replacement, Jody Craddock, was ruled out with a hamstring injury suffered during the 2-1 win over Sunderland.

Johnson made the £5million switch from Birmingham in the summer but has been below his best in recent weeks.

Now he has the chance to demonstrate his credentials against a United side looking to bounce back from their Champions League exit at the hands of Basle in midweek.

McCarthy said: “Johnson went out of the side because he was not as good as he should have been.

“I had to look to change things and Jody did well before getting his hamstring problem.

“But I had a great response from the Tuesday onwards before the game because Roger knew from then (that he was dropped).

“What was really nice was that no-one knew until kick-off. That tells me a lot about him. There was no social networking going on and people finding out.

“The response I got from then on was brilliant. When he came on (for Craddock), he turned it around for us.”

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