There have been so many departures at Chelsea the offices at Stamford Bridge are possibly sparser than at Old Trafford. Bruce Buck and Marina Granovskaia left the building last week and on Monday morning Chelsea announced Petr Cech has vacated the technical and performance advisor role.
All three are acolytes of Roman Abramovich and synonymous with his sportswashing heyday. Chelsea’s new American owner, Todd Boehly, has already been more hands-on than Abramovich and his compatriot Premier League owners across the Atlantic.
Boehly’s rendezvous with Jorge Mendes evokes memories of Ed Woodward gladhanding the game’s most eminent agent seven years ago. Woodward arranged for Mendes’s daughter to undertake work experience at Manchester United, negotiated deals for his clients Angel di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Jose Mourinho, and hugged Mendes in the Old Trafford directors’ box moments before Cristiano Ronaldo’s homecoming debut.
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After only the seventh trophyless season in the last 20 years, Chelsea have already cut their losses on their most expensive signing (for a year) and their new owner is flexing his muscles. Boehly is entering a different ballpark to Dodger Stadium and will have to lean on agents and intermediaries with Granovskaia gone. Meeting Mendes briefly quietens the braying hyenas awaiting a first transfer of the summer.
When you think of Mendes, you think of Ronaldo. Chelsea associating themselves with the game’s greatest goalscorer is bound to send Boehly’s approval ratings north. The reports of Ronaldo cropping up in discussions between Boehly and Mendes on Saturday emerged while most were waiting for Paul McCartney on the Pyramid Stage. From one ageing headline act to another.
They spurred United into action: he is not for sale. United sources believe there are innumerable Mendes clients likelier to join Chelsea than Ronaldo.
Like Abramovich 19 years ago, Boehly is prepared to unnerve the competition. Chelsea bought players of interest to United (Damien Duff and Joe Cole) and a United player in Juan Sebastian Veron for £ 15million in 2003. They would continue to blow any competition out of the water for the next three years.
United with Veron was akin to a celebrity at the Met Gala clad in the priciest purchases on the market that were meretricious and unworkable for everyday wear. Veron was a striking diamond but flimsy.
“The feeling we got was they (Chelsea) had been talking to him,” Sir Alex Ferguson said on United’s 2003 pre-season tour of the United States. “I put it to him to see if he wanted to go and he never gave me an answer.” In his second autobiography 10 years later, Ferguson lamented Veron’s reluctance to speak English: “With Veron it was just, ‘Mister’.”
Veron failed to play 90 minutes in the last two months of his second season with United and he turned out 14 times for Chelsea, a luxury Jose Mourinho could not afford. Veron was loaned, and then sold, to Inter Milan after one campaign.
United supporters embraced Veron, chanting “Ar-gen-ti-na” and “Veron, Veron”. He retains a cult status, his last act an audaciously awesome assist for Ruud van Nistelrooy against Juventus in New Jersey.
Ferguson favored Brazilians to Argentinians and rued Ronaldinho’s rejection. Kleberson was signed later that summer while a deal for Eric Djemba-Djemba had already been struck. Those signings were misguided but Veron was expendable.
Ronaldo is indispensable. Erik ten Hag sees him as a certain starter, flanked by creative wingers in a balanced front three. Ten Hag favors the flexibility of Antony rather than an out-and-out No.9, with Marcus Rashford possibly set for a trial through the middle in the pre-season.
Once a Spanish sports daily reported Ronaldo’s reputed unhappiness at United’s market inactivity, there were follow-ups in Portugal and Italy. Ronaldo has been linked with Roma and Sporting Lisbon and Jose Mourinho is believed to find Roma’s links with Ronaldo to be particularly ridiculous.
Mendes is dutybound to keep Ronaldo relevant – and coveted. United players were still in the Vicarage Road dressing room and Mendes had already demanded assurances from Ed Woodward that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would finally be going. The next morning, he was gone.
Spurious speculation surrounding Zinedine Zidane replacing Solskjaer was leaked to appease Ronaldo, who won three Champions Leagues under the Frenchman at Real Madrid.
Boehly’s face time with Mendes benefits all parties: Chelsea look as though they mean business, Mendes has made Ronaldo newsworthy and United are responding to the news promptly. His is a departure they cannot entertain.