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Rooney's new deal, Conte vs. Capello, Webb's bad day and more

Numerous outlets are reporting that Wayne Rooney’s camp and Manchester United have all but agreed to terms on a contract extension that would tie him to Old Trafford through 2019.

An announcement is expected later this week, and though the numbers thrown around vary somewhat, most suggest it’s a deal worth around $21.5 million a season with bonuses that could take it as high as $26 million. \ There is a sense of inevitability about this. Despite the stories peddled by Rooney’s people about a possible Old Trafford exit, there was no massive queue of clubs lining up to sign him, certainly not at the numbers United were expecting.

And ultimately, there was no great will on Rooney’s part to force an exit on his terms, something he could have done given that he was in the final 18 months of his contract. \ As for United, it’s partly a case of better the devil you know. Parting with Rooney would have created headaches. Not so much in terms of the starting XI -- they could play Juan Mata behind Robin van Persie and it would, if anything, make things more rational -- but because Rooney was also Van Persie’s understudy.

With the Dutchman on the wrong side of 30, United need a credible stand-in at center forward, something that neither Javier Hernandez nor Danny Welbeck represent. Losing Rooney would mean adding “legitimate striker who won’t mind deferring to Robin” to David Moyes’ summer shopping list, which is long enough already.

There’s another aspect to Rooney. Much as folks love to crucify him for every mistake and underachievement, the fact is that he has been one of the most productive strikers in United history.

He needs 42 goals to pass Bobby Charlton as the club’s all-time leading goal scorer in all competitions. (At his current pace, he’ll do so around the time he turns 30.) With another 25 goals, he’ll move into second place on the Premier League’s all-time charts, behind Alan Shearer.

For a guy who is not a genuine center forward and, over the years, has deferred to some pretty prolific teammates (Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, van Persie), it’s quite an achievement. Plus, if he stays reasonably healthy and sees out his contract, he’ll probably make enough appearances to retire in United’s all-time top five in that category. \ The point is that Rooney has value as a United brand and icon who is drenched in the club’s history. There is a generational shift going on at the club. Once Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand hang up their boots, he’ll be the most viable bridge to the past. \ Is all this worth the kind of money they’re throwing at him? \ For a start, it’s obviously a lot, but nowhere near the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo sphere. The Real Madrid striker, who signed a new deal in September, earns nearly twice that in basic wages (remember that, in Spain and Italy, totals cited are net salary and not gross, as they are in England).

More importantly, it’s a contract the club can afford, particularly with the television deal that kicked in this year. That’s the thing to remember. In this sport, bigger, richer clubs need to pay their players more.

You can do all the wage/statistical analysis you like, but odds are that a striker as productive as Rooney would command a Rooney-like salary at Old Trafford, maybe not right away, but after his first successful season. Plus, you would need to pay a transfer fee on top of that. \ Throw in the fact that, given the activity so far, letting Moyes and Ed Woodward loose with a chequebook and telling them to bring back a top striker doesn’t seem to be a great idea and you can see why this outcome, ultimately, suits all concerned.

Conte vs. Capello

We’re used to Juventus coach Antonio Conte being “Mister Intensity” and so it wasn’t entirely a surprise when, last week, he cancelled a rare day off and made his players come in for extra training.

Most managers on a record-setting pace with a nine-point lead at the top of the table probably wouldn’t do that, but that’s just how demanding the guy is. \ What was unexpected to many was his reaction when that decision was criticized (somewhat blandly, it has to be said) by Fabio Capello, who, of course, coached Juve himself between 2004 and 2006. \ “I wouldn’t have done [what Conte did],” said Capello, now coach of Russia. “I don’t like to punish players. I like to reason with my players and find solutions together.” \ Capello also had the temerity to question the current competitiveness of Serie A, implying he faced stiffer opposition when he led Juventus to back-to-back titles (which, of course, were later revoked in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal). \ Conte unleashed in reply. This was a premeditated response: evidence is the fact that he repeated more or less the same quotes to three different media at different times. \ “The guru of football has spoken,” Conte said sarcastically. “We must bow our heads and say ‘yes, master’. Who is he to talk when he doesn’t know the situation?” \ “It’s funny, because Capello’s Juve stands out not for their sparkling play, but for the fact that two of their titles were revoked. He had a juggernaut team, but they played badly and, for two consecutive years, couldn’t get past the quarterfinals of the Champions’ League.

“He could have done more. But now that he’s not around, he’s making it seem as if my Juventus are playing in an amateur league. Maybe he should worry Russia and getting past the first round of the World Cup.” \ Conte’s war of words with Capello would be entertaining enough, if not for the fact that he went somewhat “broken arrow” in mentioning the two stripped scudetti. Because in Juventus’ official history -- and the line pushed by his boss, club president Andrea Agnelli -- they should never have been revoked.

By bringing them up, Conte is questioning Capello’s titles and, by extension, Juve’s. He did specify that the Calciopoli verdict was “stupid” and Juve deserved those titles but his words were no less shocking. \ Is this a guy who knows what he’s doing, whose single-mindedness and spikiness is just part of a master plan? Or did Conte just crack and say something he now regrets? \ Time will tell. In the meantime, I hope somebody sets up a Conte v Capello verbal smackdown pay-per-view extravaganza. I’d certainly kick in my twenty-five bucks to watch that.

Webb's bad day

Lionel Messi has missed absolute sitters, Tom Brady has fumbled snaps and Kate Moss has looked frightening first thing in the morning.

(Actually, I’m not sure about that last one, but it stands to reason: we all have bad days.) \ And Howard Webb had an absolute stinker when he failed to grant a penalty for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s tackle on Luis Suarez in Arsenal’s 2-1 FA Cup win over Liverpool. Stuff happens. \ But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t an absurdly bad decision. The thing to do is to take it on the chin and move on, without making excuses.

Webb was perfectly positioned and Oxlade-Chamberlain was so uncoordinated and graceless in the way he went in that you’d be tempted to call a foul just for that. Suarez’s body twisted up in the air like some kind of demented salmon leap and, yes, he has a reputation as a diver.

But we expect the world’s best and highest-paid referees to judge what they see and it didn’t seem to be a problem earlier when Webb correctly pointed to the spot after Suarez went down under Lukas Podolski’s hack from behind.

The other explanation, that Webb didn’t want to give a second penalty so soon after the first one, is no kind of explanation at all. It doesn’t come into the thinking of good referees and Webb is, by and large, a good referee. \ In short, he simply made a colossal blunder. It happens sometimes. As long as it doesn’t happen with regularity and his performance remains better than most, it’s not cause for concern.

Arsenal's unlikely heroes

Speaking of Arsenal, the way different players rise up to carry the team at different times remains one of Arsene Wenger’s strengths.

Earlier this season, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud were propelling his team. At other times, the likes of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla or Theo Walcott have taken center stage.

Against Liverpool, it was Oxlade-Chamberlain who scored one goal and set up another, as well as Yaya Sanogo, making his full debut, who mixed it up intelligently with Liverpool’s central defence.

You can even throw in Lukas Podolski -- while his tackle was foolish, his movement and finish for Arsenal’s second goal were exceptional - and stand-in keeper, Lukasz Fabianski. \ Few teams have such a rotating cast of players capable of superstar performances on their day.

Mourinho and Wenger trade barbs

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of Wenger, he had little choice but to answer back after Jose Mourinho called him “a specialist in failure” while mocking his eight years without silverware at Arsenal.

Mourinho was irked that Wenger had suggested -- without naming him or Chelsea -- that some managers play down their title chances (something the “Special One” has done incessantly with his “baby horse” comments because of a “fear of a failure” \ Wenger responded by saying he was “embarrassed” for Mourinho after his “silly, disrespectful remarks.” \ That these two do not like each other is patently clear, going back to Mourinho’s “voyeur” comments nearly a decade ago. What is less clear is that this was some kind of elaborate “mind game” from the Portuguese.

More likely is that he simply lost his cool -- a bit like with his famous Tito Vilanova eye-poke -- and said something he probably regrets. Not that he’ll admit it anytime soon.

Bale remains ahead of Jese

With Cristiano Ronaldo suspended and Real Madrid’s 3-0 win at Getafe -- which leaves them deadlocked at the top of the table alongside Atletico Madrid and Barcelona -- evidently not being deemed newsworthy enough, the Spanish media focused on a new rivalry:

Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive player vs. Jese, the 20-year-old hometown hero. \ Both played in Ronaldo’s absence, with Bale shifted to the right and Jese out left. The latter scored the opener and terrorized Getafe’s rear-guard while the Welshman gave the ball away far too often and had little impact. Some are going so far as to suggest that when Ronaldo returns, it might be Bale who makes way. \ Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti didn’t hide when asked about Bale’s performance. “In terms of quality, he was poor. In terms of quantity, he was no different from his teammates.” \ Translated from coachspeak, Ancelotti means that Bale did his job and worked hard off the ball, which is, first and foremost, what he asks of his players. There’s enough quality in this Madrid team for Bale to be a little more blue-collar anyway, particularly when Ronaldo returns.

Jese is impressive, but the club has invested far too much in Bale for Ancelotti to have a knee-jerk reaction.

Remembering a true great

When greats of yesteryear leave us, obituaries focus on their standing in the game. I can’t speak about where Sir Tom Finney -- who passed away Friday, aged 91 -- ranks because he retired 13 years before I was born.

However, there are enough accounts from his contemporaries to suggest he may be, if not the finest, one of the finest players England has ever produced. \ What stands out in reading the obituaries, though, was the absolute everyday ordinary greatness with which he lived his life and how it contrasts not just with players today (they’re easy targets) but with most professionals from the 1960s onwards and, indeed, even his contemporaries in other parts of the world. \ Finney was a superstar who lived like an average Joe. He walked from his modest house to training carrying his boots in a paper bag. He interrupted his career to serve his country in World War II and, when he returned, having learned the plumbing trade, continued to work on the side, fixing pipes and installing bathrooms.

He answered his own fan mail (and he got plenty: in the pre-web era, folks had little to do but write letters) and spent his entire career at his hometown club, Preston. \ Actually, that last bit is something of a melancholy achievement. In England, there was a maximum wage, no free agency and a system which made transfers, especially abroad, nearly impossible. \ \ Remembering Finney isn’t just about noting how the ways of footballers have changed -- there are still plenty today who are true gentlemen like he was, though they probably have plenty more bling -- but also how, back then, owners ran the sport with an iron fist. Some things have changed for the better.

Bayern must stay focused

At this stage, you sort of feel as if Pep Guardiola’s greatest challenge -- apart from figuring out which superstars to leave out -- is simply to keep his Bayern Munich team focused.

Ahead of Saturday’s clash with Freiburg, which resulted in a predictable 4-0 drubbing, he wheeled out the usual clichés: “This game right now is more important than the Champions League, we need to be mentally strong.” \ You can see where he’s coming from. Bayern have won nine straight and 20 of the past 21 in all competitions. The one defeat was at home, against Manchester City, when they already had knockout round qualification wrapped up and somehow contrived to let an early two-goal lead slip.

It was the epitome of a mental lapse and it’s exactly what Guardiola fears right now.

Fulham farce

So at 5:53 pm London time, this was what the first-team staff page on Fulham’s website looked like.

Yep, stuff about “head coach” Rene Meulensteen being “greeted with delight” was still there. As was the bio of assistant head coach, Ray Wilkins and, of course, Alan Curbishley, the club’s technical director, but a former head coach himself. \ All this despite the announcement, elsewhere on the site, that Felix Magath was now “first-team manager”.

Silly terminology aside, you can only guess that these guys are still around because the lawyers are hard at work coming up with an exit package for Meulensteen and/or Wilkins. (It looks as if Curbishley will stay, though to do what exactly remains unclear, given Magath’s past and ways.) \ Oh for the day when these things will be a heck of a lot more straight-forward.

Messi reaching top form

Tata Martino says Barcelona couldn’t be in better shape to face Manchester City on Tuesday night in the Champions’ League.

Obviously Rayo Vallecano and their manager, Paco Jemez (whose attempts to try to outscore the opposition while ignoring basic defensive tenets are as admirable as they are self-destructive), aren’t much of a test.

Yet the likes of Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, both of whom have had some wobbles this season, turned in performances that were as good as anything we’ve seen this year.

Alexis Sanchez has contributed 15 Liga goals this season and, unlike last season, seems much more confident about knowing when to defer to others and when to go solo. \ And then there’s Lionel Messi. It’s not just the fact that he passed Alfredo Di Stefano and equalled Raul with his 228th La Liga goal (or that it took the other two guys 329 and 551 games respectively to do it, while he managed it in a mere 263).

His two strikes made it five in his last three games and, sure, Rayo are Rayo, but the other three came away to Sevilla and Real Sociedad.

Messi is showing the sharpness we’re accustomed too, as if the injury and the horrid end (off the pitch) to 2013 are well out of his system.

Inter make progress

I’m not sure who those guys in Inter shirts were on Saturday night, but the eleven men who won at Fiorentina looked nothing like the Nerazzurri we’ve seen all season. They pressed high, used the two strikers to befuddle Vincenzo Montella’s back three and held the ball well in midfield. \ Fiorentina fans will point to the fact that Mauro Icardi was offside when he scored the winner (he was) and that had Mario Gomez not had the reaction time of a pile of rubble (to be fair, he was coming back after a long lay-off, but his movement on Alessandro Matri’s cross was the anti-thesis of predatory) then this game could have finished differently. \ All true. But it has been a long time since we saw Walter Mazzarri’s Inter look convincing and enterprising. And that is something to build on.