Romelu Lukaku missed Manchester United‘s open training session amid ongoing speculation about his future.
Two years after his big-money move from Everton, there are questions about the 26-year-old’s Old Trafford happiness and Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan are eyeing a summer move.
However, PA understands the Serie A side have been struggling to meet United’s demands for Lukaku, who arrived at the club in a transfer worth £75million plus add-ons and still has three years left on his contract.
United also have the option to extend his deal for a further year and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer warned on Wednesday that the club would not be pressured into selling anyone.
But tongues were set wagging the following day as thousands of fans descended on the WACA stadium in Perth, where Lukaku was conspicuous by his absence from the main group.
PA understands that the Belgium international was nursing a knock, so instead did alternative gym-based work along with Anthony Martial.
Thanks to all the fans who came to open training, we appreciate the support always ❤ pic.twitter.com/cTxelSqDkb— Diogo Dalot (@DalotDiogo) 11 July 2019
The pair could be seen on exercise bikes overlooking the main training group, which Luke Shaw left early. The full-back had some strapping on his right knee.
The players were in good spirits during the session at the WACA, despite a plane flying overhead shortly before the start that reminded them of the challenges facing the Red Devils as they attempt to return to the top domestically and in Europe.
‘Liverpool FC – 6x European champions!’ read a banner flown by plane over the 12,000 fans in attendance to see the United stars in action.
The proceeds from the ticketed event went to Telethon and the Manchester United Foundation, with a number of young children brought onto the pitch for a kickabout with the players.
Manager Solskjaer spent a lengthy spell signing autographs for fans, before the squad went on a lap of appreciation.
Diogo Dalot, David De Gea, Juan Mata and Tahith Chong were among those who spent time signing autographs after training, so too new boy Daniel James.
the waca welcomes manchester united but liverpool fans don’t sksksks pic.twitter.com/TeolCSdzO7— sof. (@sssofiaaa__) 11 July 2019
Paul Pogba also went over to the supporters after a session in which he was again the centre of attention as talk rumbles on about his United future.
The France midfielder may be hoping for a new challenge somewhere else, but he clearly enjoyed the second of the double training sessions as he celebrated a mini-game win with team-mates and joked around with De Gea.
It was the second day out of three that United have done double sessions since arriving in Australia, where they kick-off pre-season against Perth Glory at the Optus Stadium on Saturday.
Buying a world-class defender these days might seem like finding gold dust – but as certain clubs have proved, they don’t need to cost a fortune.
The savvier businessmen of the football world identified some of the stars of today way ahead of time, saving both a small fortune and the pain of a long summer transfer saga (here’s looking at you, Ed Woodward).
Below, we show the value of big clubs who trust their scouting network, rather than chase those who have already made it big.
HARRY MAGUIRE (Leicester City)
Fee paid €8m Today’s value €50m +€42m
THEN: Long before he was known the world over as ‘Slabhead’, Maguire was holding his bonce in his hands on the bench at Hull City, before a loan move to Championship side Wigan in 2015 reignited his career on Humberside.
The Sheffield United youth product was voted Player of the Year by both the fans and his team-mates at the end of an otherwise dismal 2016/17 that ended in Premier League relegation, and it was enough for Leicester to part with £12m, plus £5m in add-ons, for his services.
NOW: Maguire’s immediate task at the Foxes was to aid Premier League-winning heroes Robert Huth and Wes Morgan’s aging bodies. He ended up playing every single minute of the league campaign and scooped another clutch of awards at the end-of-season dinner for his new club.
Then his name was immortalised among the England support in Russia at World Cup 2018, as his Herculean displays – as well as his confidence on the ball – harked back to the best Three Lions defenders of yesteryear.
Ever since then Manchester United have been chasing the 26-year-old to no avail. While his true market value may not be near the £90m Leicester are quoting, they are deservedly set to make a garguantan profit after identifying the Yorkshireman early in his career.
IBRAHIMA KONATE (RB Leipzig)
Fee paid Free Today’s value €45m +€45m
THEN: You can even find talent down at the bottom of Ligue 2. Konate was three months shy of his 18th birthday when Sochaux, facing the threat of relegation in 2016/17, gave their kid a chance.
Konate suitably impressed in the 12 games he was afforded, helping steer Sochaux clear of the drop and proving that this was no boy thrown into a man’s game. RB Leipzig certainly agreed and, much to the anger of his boyhood club, he left France on a free.
NOW: Leipzig are the envy of most of Europe for their defensive options. Willi Orban is the wise old head at the age of 26, while Dayot Upamecano and Konate are the two incredibly young – and outrageously good – French talents in a side that conceded just 29 goals in the Bundesliga last season.
Konate in particular passes the eye test. Standing at 6ft 4in but still capable of moving with a gazelle-like grace with or without the ball, as the 20-year-old springs attacks almost as often as he snuffs them out. Valued at €45m now, it’s difficult to see how this won’t continue on an upwards trajectory.
ANDY ROBERTSON (Liverpool)
Fee paid €9m Today’s value €60m +€51m
THEN: Here’s where we have to credit Hull again. Tigers’ chief scout Stan Ternent had gone up to Dundee United to scout a different player but was entranced by Robertson, who was playing his first – and only season – in the Scottish Premiership, having been playing in the third division the year before.
Going on to make the league’s team of the year, Hull needed to part with just £2.85m to whisk him south of the border in 2014. Three yo-yo years later between the Championship and the Premier League, Liverpool had also seen enough to throw him another massive stepping stone. Hull more than doubled their money, but £8m …
NOW: … is looking like one of the biggest bargains in recent transfer history. The Scottish Roberto Carlos? What seemed like hyperbole, or a flippant joke among Liverpool fans, suddenly does not seem so farcical at all.
Robertson supplied a faintly ridiculous 11 Premier League assists, forming the best left-right combo since Rocky Balboa with Reds youth product Trent Alexander-Arnold. His crosses seem to hang in the air for his target – having bent around corners to get there – and his defending isn’t half-bad either. How about Robertinho?
RAPHAEL VARANE (Real Madrid)
Fee paid €10m Today’s value €70m +€60m
THEN: Konate has a touch of the Varane about him, in the way that the early stages of his career has followed a similar path. Varane was even younger – only 17 – when he took advantage of injury to show off his precocious talent in Lens’ starting line-up.
That game, a 2-0 victory over Montpellier, drew unanimous praise and before the season was out – even though it ended in relegation – Varane had been asked to play in defensive midfield and was even made captain in the final game.
How different Manchester United now may look with him stationed in their defence. As it was he opted for Real Madrid, who handed Lens €10m worth of loose change.
NOW: Varane has won 16 trophies with Real since his 2011 transfer. That equates to around €620,000 per title. While nostalgia may not appease Madridistas still smarting from a woeful 2018/19 campaign – for which Varane was at least partially culpable – the 26-year-old at his best remains the proverbial Rolls-Royce.
He is the yin to Sergio Ramos’ yang, a sleek operator who revels in robbing attackers of possession through stealth, whereas his counterpart always lets them know he is there. It’ll be interesting to see if Varane thrives quite so well when Ramos finally steps down, but it’s an investment that has already paid off ten-fold.
JOSHUA KIMMICH (Bayern Munich)
Fee paid €8.5m Today’s value €75m +€66.5m
THEN: Much like Varane, Kimmich feels like he has been around for much longer than the reality. Produced by the same youth system at Stuttgart that cultivated stars such as Mario Gomez, Sami Khedira, Serge Gnabry and most recently Timo Werner, they inexplicably let Kimmich get away as a teenager.
He promptly aided RB Leipzig’s rise to the second division and then the Bundesliga proper, before the – until-then – defensive midfielder tooled up as Pep Guardiola’s new Swiss army knife at Bayern Munich for the almost derisory fee of €8.5m.
NOW: According to the man himself, Kimmich was besotted with Pep as soon as he met him. “I thought ‘Wow, this is a man who knows me and my style of play perfectly’,” he told The Guardian. With his superb technical skills and tactical understanding of the game, the 24-year-old has switched between midfield, right-back and even a stint at centre-back with ease – for club and country.
That was back in 2015 and while Guardiola has long since moved on, Kimmich is well on his way to becoming a Bayern Munich legend. Having filled the gaping hole that Philipp Lahm’s retirement left in 2017, the German – still only 24 – is finding no problem surveying the game from the right flank, contributing an eye-watering 13 assists in the Bundesliga last term.
KALIDOU KOULIBALY (Napoli)
Fee paid €7.75m Today’s value €75m +€67.75m
THEN: Koulibaly did not ascend to stardom nearly quite so dramatically as the other French-born players on this list. Thrown into action at an early age – tick. First becoming captain that same season – another tick. However, instead of being poached by the big clubs, a 20-year-old Koulibaly left for the relative hinterlands of Belgium after a couple of campaigns in the first-team at Metz.
Injury and suspension had hindered his progression in France, but he was irreplaceable at Genk and impressed in the Europa League when the chance arose. Only Napoli cottoned onto his potential greatness in 2014, however, as he was allowed to leave Belgium for a mere €7.75m.
NOW: The initial reaction to Koulibaly’s arrival in Naples was … lukewarm. He’s now the toast of the city, having been named an honorary citizen five wonderful seasons later. Incredibly, the 23-year-old was seen as a project player for Rafa Benitez to mold back in 2013 – and while the Spaniard’s presence will have certainly initially helped, it is now hard to think of a comparable defender in world football except for Virgil van Dijk.
Cantankerous Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has reportedly flatly rejected a Manchester United bid of €110m for his prized asset. When he does things like this, it’s easy to understand why.
Koulibaly’s goal line clearance 👏🏼— ManUnitedZone (@ManUnitedZone_) May 19, 2019
Send Napoli 90m + Smalling, Jones and Young 🤝
JOSE GIMENEZ (Atletico Madrid)
Fee paid €900,000 Today’s value €70m +€69.1m
THEN: On to the final, and the biggest bargain, of this magnificent seven. No-one has come from greater obscurity – at least from a European football watcher’s perspective – than Gimenez.
Atletico Madrid clearly liked what they saw from very few hours on the pitch. Gimenez had played just a handful of games for Uruguay first division side Danubio before pouncing in April 2013, perhaps wary that he was likely to put in a star turn at the Under-20 World Cup that summer – which he did as Uruguay reached the final.
NOW: It turns out that €900,000 can buy you an awful lot of defender. The 24-year-old is a classic pugnacious South American defender who will give you no inch, often at some cost to himself. A smattering of injuries is the only black mark to his name in the five years that he and his countryman Diego Godin have been marshalling Atleti’s defence together.
That partnership is no more, with Godin having moved on to new pastures with Inter Milan. It’ll be interesting to see how Gimenez steadies the ship, as Godin’s creaking legs began to show last season. He is no technician with the ball at his feet but – as for pure defenders – there are few better.
Marcus Rashford is all the more motivated to get Manchester United back to the top by seeing the eye-catching success of rivals Manchester City and Liverpool.
After stumbling home sixth at the end of a tumultuous Premier League season, the 20-time champions are in the midst of a rebuilding job as they look to compete for major trophies under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Plenty of work is required to achieve that, but Rashford is determined to return United to the summit of the English game, having earlier this month signed a new four-year deal with the option of a further season.
“I think the mood is how it should be, really,” the England forward said.
“Everyone’s positive. We know that last season wasn’t good enough, but we’ve put it behind us and we’ve worked harder than ever to try and put things right and going into the season that’s what we’ll be looking to do.
“For me, it’s always been a goal of mine to help the club get back to where they were and what we all know as Manchester United.
“So, the decision (to sign a new deal) wasn’t a hard decision because I don’t feel like we’ve done that.
“Not only me, that’s something the dressing room shares, and everyone’s looking forward to trying to get that dream done.”
And for academy graduate Rashford, the hurt of seeing rivals City dominate domestically and Liverpool lift the Champions League fuels him even further.
“For me (it makes me more motivated), yeah,” he said at the WACA in Perth.
“That makes putting United back to where they were even a bigger challenge.
“You know, you never shy away from a challenge, so it’s important that we face it head on. What’s happened has happened and we have to move forward as a team.”
Rashford was the first United player to speak to the mass media since the squad returned for pre-season training, with a double session on United’s first full day in Perth meaning the forward feels in much better shape than this time last year.
The 21-year-old says the sessions have been “quite tough” and morale is good, despite speculation about key players and even talk of a bust-up between Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard, something Solskjaer dismissed out of hand.
It is not the first time Lingard has been under the spotlight this summer, with videos from his holiday with Rashford and their friends leading to criticism and scrutiny.
One in particular led to widespread criticism, with the attacking midfielder heard swearing before a friend is seen simulating having sex inside their hotel.
Lingard is believed to have meant to save the video rather than posting it on Snapchat and Rashford has defended his United team-mate.
“I’ve not spoken to the manager about it,” he said.
“But from what I’ve seen of it, people have to understand that he was enjoying his holiday and it was a mistake, you know, so there’s not really much I can say about that.”