Manchester United are already preparing how they will attempt to persuade their elite players to stay for a Europa League campaign next season, as Real Madrid threaten to capitalise on Wayne Rooney's desire to be in the Champions League by poaching him this summer.
United, whose difficult transition under David Moyes leaves them six points off the Champions League places in the Premier League, face a struggle to avoid the loss of Rooney, Robin van Persie and David de Gea if they do drop out of the elite competition.
They will seek to sell an Old Trafford future to them, by telling them that they can be the generation of heroes who can help rebuild a global institution and take it straight back into the elite. Rooney and others will also be reminded that many of the great clubs miss out on the Champions League every now and then, but do not stay outside of it for long. Bayern Munich fell out in 2006-07 but got straight back in. Juventus and Barcelona have also been out of the competition in the last 15 years. A finish outside the top four will be characterised as a "once in a lifetime" event, which after a brief period of transition will be in the past.
Rooney, who remains a week off match fitness, may be the hardest player to persuade, with Real's reasons for wanting him to move both detailed and logical. The Spanish side had made Sergio Aguero their top target for the summer but, with Manchester City increasingly confident that the Argentine will not leave, the prime back-up options are understood to be Rooney and Radamel Falcao.
Rooney's ability both to play off the striker and operate up front makes him a huge attraction to the Spanish club, who have only Karim Benzema – contracted until 2015 – as a senior experienced striker.
The possibility of signing Falcao from Monaco would carry no obstacles for Real, since the Colombian is thought to want a higher standard of football than the French league provides. But Florentino Perez, the Real president, is thought to be a long-time admirer of Rooney. The Englishman would also be cheaper than Falcao.
United, who have been unwilling to contemplate the notion of Juan Mata's Old Trafford move being contingent on Rooney heading to Stamford Bridge, insist their striker is not for sale.
In the event of United needing to reclaim Champions League status next season, they may be prepared to allow his contract to run down and take the hit on losing him for a minimal sum in 2015. In that sense, the way United's owners, the Glazers, decide to play the Rooney situation will be an acid test of how intent they are on putting the club before cash.
The cost of falling into the Europa League is likely to have a large impact on United in the transfer market, as Moyes seeks to rebuild this summer. Manchester City proved that players can be signed in those circumstances because in the summer of 2010, after being pipped by Tottenham Hotspur to the Champions League, they secured Yaya Touré, David Silva and Mario Balotelli.
Selling the idea of joining United, with their huge global appeal, will be easier for Moyes and his chief executive, Ed Woodward, than it was for Roberto Mancini at City back then. But luring top targets may entail a greater outlay on wages. Since United's wage bill is higher than Chelsea's and the club's stars can secure higher incomes than City's if commercial spin-offs are accounted for, United believe they can persuade players to join them if they do slip out of the elite.
In the short term, the prospect of being able to pick Rooney and van Persie – the two players on whom United's top four status is contingent – still seems a way off for Moyes. Neither is understood to have trained today, despite the United manger claiming last Friday that vsan Persie would be on the Carrington grass for the first time since undergoing work to resolve a thigh complaint. Rooney has a slim chance of being back in the United side to face Cardiff City at Old Trafford next Tuesday, but the trip to Stoke City on 1 February is the most likely return date for him and van Persie.
Rooney has started only one Premier League game this calendar year and the fact that it always takes him several games to hit his stride after returning means Moyes will need him back at Stoke in preparation for the visit to Arsenal 11 days later. That is the start of a 31-day period in which United also face both City and Liverpool. Chelsea's willingness to negotiate around a United bid for Mata, which is understood to be £10m more than any other club has offered, suggests that they do not consider them to be a threat to their aims on the title.
The agent of Bayern Munich defender Dante has denied the player has signed for United but admitted Old Trafford scouts have watched him.