SPORTS

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January 23, 2004

Saha won't help Manchester win Premier League

Is Louis Saha, Manchester United's latest striking acquisition, supposed to be Ruud Van Nistelrooij's striking partner or his alternative? Whichever way you look at it, it seems as though head coach Sir Alex Ferguson has made yet another failed transfer coup, which is music to the ears of their domestic and European rivals.

Manchester United definitely needs a striker. The club boasts outstanding depth except up front, where nobody has filled the void left by Teddy Sheringham's departure. While Arsenal has Dennis Bergkamp and Chelsea has Adrian Mutu, the Red Devils literally have no one. They have tried advancing Paul Scholes and Juan Veron, and they have tried pushing back Ole-Gunnar Solskaer and Diego Forlan, but all to no avail. In the league, the abundance of talent in the rest of the team means that this lack is no serious threat, but in the Champions League it is simply unacceptable. Ferguson clearly realizes this, because he tried so hard to acquire the services of Brazilian star Ronaldinho this summer. Alas, he was pipped by Barcelona. If Manchester United wants to win the Champions League, it needs quality and it needs it now.

Unfortunately for Manchester United, most of the ideal targets, such as Rivaldo, Raul, Del Piero, and so on are all cup-tied. This has seriously hamstrung their attempts, with the list of eligible strikers shrinking to Louis Saha, Jermaine Defoe, and Leeds pair Mark Viduka and Alan Smith. The latter are the obvious choices. Why? First, they actually have Champions League experience. Second, they have played consistently at a high level for several seasons.

The same, however, cannot be said of Saha. This season aside, he has nothing on his CV to suggest that he has the immediate quality which Ferguson is searching for. No caps, 13 goals in two seasons, no European experience (unless you wish to count the Inter-Toto Cup), and no honors. But wait—this might be one of Ferguson's diamonds in the rough. Surely a manager of his experience and excellence has a good eye for spotting underappreciated talent. Er, doesn't he?

With the exception of keeper Tim Howard, it is difficult to recall the last time that Sir Alex entered the market for a modestly-priced, relative unknown and came away satisfied. David Bellion and Eric Djemba-Djemba are but two of a sizeable group of failed experiments who were at least cheap. The same cannot be said of Diego Forlan. The fact of the matter is that all of Ferguson's success stories over the last 10 seasons or so have either been products of Manchester United's consistently excellent youth academy or proven talents acquired at a non-trivial price (recall that for all his current brilliance, Christiano Ronaldo's talent was not underestimated by a market which forced Sir Alex to part with more than $20 million for his services).

If Saha is not cheap, does that mean he can't be that bad? Actually, it is better to say that his price is a slight mystery since an extra five million pounds or so would land you Claude Makelele or Damian Duff. But the main reason for the high price tag is that Manchester United is in a weak bargaining position: Saha had three years left on his contract and his club was financially sound and wanted to keep him, while Manchester United needed him and only him now. Over a normal summer with a normal bargaining scenario, his price would be closer to the $10 million mark rather than the $18 million he's now being paid.

Let us, for the sake of argument, entertain the possibility that Saha is, in fact, an excellent player. Sadly for Sir Alex, his excellence is not in the required position. Saha is an out-and-out striker who can hold the ball up and finish. He is not an inside forward, nor has he ever been a creator of goals or the conjurer of guileful passes that Ronaldinho certainly is. As much as we enjoy mocking him, Forlan isn't actually that bad at leading the line (rather than supporting Van Nistelrooij), and Solskjaer is as good a finisher as one can find in the Premiership. Saha is, therefore, unlikely to form a better partnership with Ruud than his current teammates have, and that's assuming Saha's actually any good.

Sir Alex has really miscalculated here. If Manchester United doesn't win the league, it will not be because of a lack of cover for Ruud—it will be because they lack that little bit of flair in a striker which Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs cannot compensate for out on the wings. Saha, even at his best, does not fulfill this role. The Champions League offers a similar scenario, whereby the absence of a partner for Ruud is the most pressing weakness, not the absence or a replacement. Surely it would have been better to get either one of the Leeds' strikers, or to simply wait until the summer and avoid the constraints of players being cup-tied. Saha described his arrival at Old Trafford as a dream move. If things pan out as expected, it will be Arsenal, Chelsea, and the rest of Europe who can claim to be living that dream out.