Football: Is this the rebirth of a love match?

by IVAN SPECK, Daily Mail

All it needed for Laurent Blanc to become a Manchester United player last night was one stylish signature from Inter Milan president Massimo Moratti.

After a day of haggling that saw Blanc ask for a golden handshake from the Italians, the money matters were all but settled and Sir Alex Ferguson was on the verge of landing the World Cup-winner he has coveted for years.

If Blanc does find himself at Manchester's Ringway Airport today, at least he will be in familiar surroundings. He was a frequent visitor when his former Montpellier team-mate Eric Cantona ruled the Old Trafford roost and was in town visiting his old pal when United clinched their first Premiership title under Ferguson in 1993.

Blanc will have a new pal to show him around the town now - Fabien Barthez, the man with whom he concocted one of the recurring images of the 1998 World Cup by kissing the goalkeeper's bald forehead prior to every match.

If they link up for a single season - Blanc will sign a one-year deal with United - the pair will present an unlikely partnership.

While Barthez is something of a loose cannon, 35-year-old Blanc is a known gentleman - Le President, as he was called by his team-mates while at Barcelona.

The fame and fortunes which have accompanied other French exiles and exaggerated their opinions of themselves have left 'Lolo' largely untouched.

While United supporters agonised over the loss of Jaap Stam on Monday evening and Inter Milan fielded calls from Old Trafford about their central defender, Blanc was back in Montpellier playing boules with friends.

He returns to his home village of Rousson, near Nimes, every year for a football tournament bearing his name and always raffles off a national team shirt for the village sports club where his career began. Such is the love for Rousson's favourite son that the mayor erected a giant banner proclaiming their support for Blanc when he was unjustly sent off in the World Cup semi-final victory over Croatia in 1998. It was his only red card in 97 internationals.

'I have this feeling of having tasted the cake but now I'm not allowed to touch the cherry,' Blanc said bitterly. Even victory over Italy in the Euro 2000 Final could not erase the indelible stain of disappointment.

In some ways, that episode encapsulated a player whose elegance and quiet strength have too often been missed on the main stage. At United he will make his Champions League debut. He has helped his club qualify for the competition on three separate occasions - at Barcelona, Auxerre and Marseille - yet each time has left before the matches came around. Success has frequently been mixed with disappointment. A French Cup triumph with Montpellier in 1991 was followed by an unhappy spell at Napoli.

It was in the homespun surroundings of Auxerre where his renaissance began. Veteran coach Guy Roux said: 'Laurent was the real leader of the defence and also had a big influence on the general attitude. I often said I would never have a Beckenbauer in my team to play the ball out of defence. I was wrong. I had Blanc.'

After Auxerre came Barcelona, then a move back to France with Marseille, who he led to the 1999 UEFA Cup Final against Parma. Then Inter came calling and Marseille coach Rolland Courbis considered their offer for a 34-year-old too good to refuse.

His international career was a similar combination - victory at Euro 2000 but failure to make it past the group stage in 1992; euphoria at France 98 and a disastrous home defeat by Bulgaria which prevented their participation in the 1994 World Cup. Blanc announced his retirement from the national side, only to reconsider at the request of new coach Aime Jacquet.

'The French team is my life. It has led me to do things I shouldn't have. It has been my mistress - a beautiful mistress,' he said upon his eventual retirement this spring.

We wait to see whether his one-year affair with United is equally passionate.

Whether the Valencia defender Mauricio Pellegrino follows him to Old Trafford before tomorrow's Champions League deadline remains to be seen. Last night the Italian said: 'I know of Manchester United's interest and it seems crazy such a big club should want me, but there is another team interested.' He was referring to Celtic, who may offer him £1.5m a year to sign. The race is on.

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