Manchester United will attempt to prevent Cristiano Ronaldo buying himself out of his current contract and leaving for Real Madrid by offering him an extension to it next summer.
By the end of the season he will have served three years of his existing five-year deal, and at that point any player aged under 28 is allowed to break his contract by paying his club a sum equal to the wages on the remaining period. Estimating his salary at £120,000 per week, that would mean a fee of £12.48 million, well within Ronaldo's capabilities as well as Real Madrid's.
United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, admitted that "next summer will be a key element of his contract situation", but he is banking that Ronaldo will not become the first world-class player to exercise his right to move on under the so-called Webster ruling. "Nobody has ever done that. I think the big clubs would shy away from that because it could happen to them," Ferguson said.
The option is available to players at that stage of their contract after the test case involving Andy Webster, who walked out on Hearts to join Wigan Athletic two years ago and ended up paying them only £150,000 after they had demanded a £5m fee.
The Spanish club's president, Ramon Calderon, recently said the pursuit of Ronaldo was finished "unless Manchester United want to sell him", but as soon as the player offered any hint that he would like to fulfil what he has called his "dream", Real would undoubtedly be interested.
Relations between the two clubs would become even more strained in that case, Ferguson having insisted on Friday of the rift that has developed: "I don't care two monkeys about it. We have the player we want, they don't have the player they like. Calderon promised so much to get the lad. Some of his comments were ridiculous.
"There was a complete arrogance about it all. They do it all the time anyway and we are ready for that. We have enough ammunition ready. We won't use the big gun at the moment. We'll get the Gatling gun in January. We complained to Fifa last year and they said there wasn't enough evidence."
Ferguson will need to train that gun on a much closer target if Manchester City repeat noises made at the time of their recent takeover about bidding more than £100m for Ronaldo in the next transfer window. City's patchy form – one win in five Premier League games – has made it clear to the new Abu Dhabi owners that further recruitment is required. Most of those connected to the club hope, however, that it is not done to the detriment of the club's excellent record in developing youth players through their academy or bringing in younger British ones from smaller clubs.
The England Under-21 goalkeeper Joe Hart, a case in point, was musing ahead of today's local derby at ailing Bolton (who have mustered just one win and five goals in nine matches) about the pressures of performing in the knowledge that some of the world's best players in his position have been mentioned as possible targets.
"It's not just [Gianluigi] Buffon, there has been talk of Iker Casillas as well," Hart said. "Basically, anybody that is a good player will be linked with Manchester City now. There's nothing I can do about that. But the club are really banging the drum about how keen they are to use their youth players and go with what they have got."
Hart was given his chance by Shrewsbury Town so early that he had to take a day off school as a nervous 15-year-old to travel to Exeter when the normal substitute goalkeeper was injured. Stuart Pearce signed him for City in 2006 and is now his manager at Under-21 level, where he shouldbe first choice for next summer's European Championships in Sweden.
Hart picked up a first full cap away to Trinidad & Tobago in June and flew with Pearce and Middlesbrough's David Wheater to Belarus last month as goalkeeping cover.
Unfortunately, hard-up Shrewsbury will not receive the £500,000 due to them from City until Hart plays a competitive game for England. The Shrews' manager, Paul Simpson – a former City hero – would doubtless reflect that it is a very different world from that of Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid.