Tevez's long goodbye
Manchester United were crowned Premier League champions on Saturday amid great fanfare, and rightly so; not only was this season's triumph a hat-trick of championships and their 11th title in 16 years, it was also their 18th overall bringing them level in the all-time standings with fierce rivals Liverpool.
But, for the supporters inside Old Trafford, doubts over the future of Carlos Tevez proved to be a black fly in the celebration champagne. While it would be unfair to say United's coronation was marred by the debate surrounding the 25-year-old Argentine, its spectre certainly cast a shadow as the fans made their thoughts known.
Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to substitute Tevez was greeted with howls of derision and protest boos; when a jubilant Ferguson took the pitch with a microphone to address the stadium after the game he was drowned out by the now familiar refrain of ''Fergie, sign him up'', and outside the stadium mounted police were used to disperse demonstrators.
Despite such outpourings of affection for Tevez, who has always enjoyed a great rapport with the United fans, the writing might already be on the wall and the striker may already know he is moving on.
Having already said he feels ''unloved'' by the club, and with his controversial lease deal due to expire next month, Tevez fuelled exit speculation when he failed to show for the club's traditional end of season awards night on Tuesday - he was the only player missing, his absence blamed on the need to take care of his ill daughter.
While the fans want Tevez to stay at Old Trafford it remains unclear whether the player still does, if United want him or exactly what the shadowy cabal of businessmen and investors who control his future want.
And that is the dark heart of the situation and the incredible truth that, despite multi-million pound out-of-court settlements, plus Premier League enquiries and high court investigations into his controversial and confusing contracts, we still do not know who owns Tevez.
United are 23 months into a two-year lease deal with the unnamed group which controls the player's economic rights, an organisation fronted by Iranian businessman Kia Joorabchian. While the Premier League and United know who Joorabchian represents confidentiality clauses prevent them from divulging their identity.
What we know is that in 2007 United agreed to pay between £3m-£4m per season for the right to hold Tevez's playing registration for two years. Under the terms of that deal, next month United are entitled to buy Tevez outright, acquiring his playing registration and economic rights, but only if they pay a fixed fee already stipulated in the contract agreed two years ago, believed to be in the region of £20m-£25m.
If United refuse to pay the previously agreed fee the player's registration reverts to Joorabchian et al and they can then go looking for a new club to either lease or sell Tevez to.
Last week Ferguson said an offer had been made so United could keep the player, but Joorabchian was unmoved and insisted there was no room for negotiation. As far as he and the people he represents are concerned there is a binding agreement in place with United that clearly states that if a deal is to be done it will be for the pre-determined price written in the contract.
There was suggestion that United would wait until their two-year lease deal expired and try to strike a deal with the player believing that he would be a free agent, but this was never an option.
However uncomfortable the premise may be, Tevez is effectively a commodity owned by consortium who will sell or lease him to the highest bidder. Tevez's contract is with Joorabchian and those behind him, the only way the player can become a free agent is if he buys out his own deal with these mysterious parties or is sold to another club.
It all sounds a little bit like slavery, but somehow Tevez appears content with the situation and is understood to be close friends with Joorabchian who is his adviser - effectively his agent. What makes Tevez unhappy is the way he feels the club have treated him, both on the pitch and in procrastinating over his future.
What fans find difficult to understand is why United are not prepared to meet the pre-agreed asking price for a player who gives his all and scores goals. Tevez clearly agrees and is known to have been perturbed when United spent £30.75m last summer to buy Dimitar Berbatov.
Having scored 14 goals in 34 league appearances (starting 31 games and making just three substitute appearances), Tevez thought his place in the Old Trafford hierarchy was assured. Buying Berbatov was an affront to the player and one that impacted both on his early season confidence and restricted his first team opportunities.
With one game to go this season he may have played 29 league games, but with 11 of those appearances coming as a sub and just five (albeit crucial) goals to his name, Tevez's second season has fallen short of his first in both Ferguson's eyes and the player's own.
Perhaps it is Tevez's perceived underperformance that has led Ferguson to question the £25m price tag? But, despite a less prolific season, Tevez is surely worth £25m and on the open market perhaps more; tabloid reports suggest Real Madrid and AC Milan are lining up rival £40m bids.
Ferguson has said that Tevez is a ''fantastic player'' but insists the fee being demanded is ''unrealistic'' and wants compromise, but as far Joorabchian is concerned there is a deal and a price in place and that's that.
It appears the usual conventions and principles of football transfers just aren't applying in this instance because, as Ferguson has pointed out, United are talking with a company, not another club.
And there lies the other problem, do United want to deal with Joorabchian and his unnamed partners?
If United were to buy Tevez outright then chief executive David Gill would have sanctioned a vast sum of money being siphoned from the game to unnamed profiteers. As a senior figure within the Football Association, to do so would be difficult to reconcile with Gill's political and sporting instincts, perhaps even his moral compass.
Tevez has asked Joorabchian to put discussions on hold until after United's Champions League final in Rome next week, by which time he could have two Premier League and two European Cup titles to show for his two seasons at Old Trafford.
Perhaps United are waiting to the end of their two year lease deal to expire, expecting or hoping that then they can negotiate a fresh deal in an open market freed from the restrictions of the current contract. If so it is a risky gamble and will test the patience of the player who has already questioned the club's commitment to him.
The frustration felt by United fans will be heightened if Tevez ends up signing for the Manchester's nouveau riche across the City at Eastlands.
As long as Tevez's future is decided by a cabal of businessmen then he will go to highest bidder, or the club that offers the biggest payday; as Manchester City are the richest club in the world they must be considered as serious contenders for his signature.