Belfast Telegraph

Pogba's return may signal the start of biggest names flocking to England

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

As much time and energy has been spent at Old Trafford over the last three years worrying about how to replace Sir Alex Ferguson, there is another question which has been troubling them for four years longer than that - how to replace Cristiano Ronaldo.

For seven years Manchester United have been a superclub with no real star, only a slowly fading Wayne Rooney and a brief flicker of Angel di Maria two seasons ago.

It has been Ed Woodward's mission since he replaced David Gill in 2013 to find United a player of that calibre and fame. He tried for Gareth Bale, Neymar, and even to get Ronaldo back. But it never came to anything.

This weekend, three years after stepping up into the Old Trafford hotseat, Woodward will bring another United alumnus home. And all it took was the best part of £100m.

Signing Paul Pogba will be one of the most significant events in the modern history of United.

To break the world transfer record, in a deal brokered by agent Mino Raiola (below), is a statement, even given the fee-inflation of this summer. And Pogba is that expensive for a reason.

He is the most sought-after, gifted, accomplished player of his generation. He is a very rare talent, and a four-time Italian champion with Juventus to boot.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be a bigger name, but he is 34-years-old. Pogba is 23 and United will have the best years of his career.

Opportunities like this do not come along every transfer window. United have only been able to watch over the last seven years, the post-Ronaldo era, as the three biggest teams in Europe moved away from them.

The 2009 Champions League final was Ronaldo's last game for United. They went into it as European champions, and on level terms with Pep Guardiola's Barcelona.

But United lost 2-0 that night. Their one European Cup final since then, in 2011, they lost 3-1 to the same opponents. In the eight finals from 2009 and 2016, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have mostly carved up the glory between them.

Barca have won it three times, Real Madrid twice and Bayern once. There has not been a final without one of those three teams since 2008.

The effect has been to create a 'big three' at the top of the European game, with United and the rest of the English teams shut out.

That new elite has had the biggest transfers in the world sewn up between them. In 2013 Barca signed Neymar and Real signed Gareth Bale. The next year Barcelona signed Luis Suarez and Real signed James Rodriguez.

The best English clubs were powerless to do anything about those deals. The best players they signed were either cast-offs from the big three, like Di Maria, Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez.

This is why United signing Pogba feels so important. It feels as if the last seven years of history, of United drifting away at the top of the game, has been stopped.

United may not now be fully level with Barcelona and Real in profile terms, or on the pitch, although they are surely closer. But they have just pulled off a transfer that neither of those quite had the stomach for.

So will this be the start of a great re-alignment of European football, with the best players moving towards England?

Of course this is just one data point, and earlier this summer Renato Sanches ended up at Bayern Munich rather than United.

But the Premier League's new £5.1b TV deal kicks in this year, with further increases from foreign broadcast rights to follow. Combined with increased commercial revenues there is a new firepower in England.

Having become financially competitive again, all English teams must do now is show they are competitive. Since Ronaldo left, there has only been one Champions League winner from England - a fortunate Chelsea.

United, Chelsea and City now need to show they can build teams worthy of their riches. Then the top players will follow Pogba back.

Belfast Telegraph


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