Veteran duo searching for spotlight
In a World Cup year, players pushing for squad places find themselves under increasing pressure to get more games under their belt. The media is full of stories from international managers claiming that there is no chance of players making their final list without significant impact at club level - no matter what their standing within the game - and even the ones who have 'retired' find themselves tempted by the prestige of the footballing world's biggest competition.
Two such players - Ruud van Nistelrooy and Patrick Vieira - became legends in the Premier League, but now find themselves short of time on the pitch at their clubs: Real Madrid and Inter Milan. Limited by injuries in the past few seasons, their current situation sees them scrabbling around for moves in the January transfer window; and it cannot come soon enough.
There is a stumbling block to their hopes though. Neither player can play in the Champions League with Van Nistelrooy having made a ten-minute cameo against AC Milan and Vieira managing just slightly more from off the bench against Dynamo Kiev and Rubin Kazan. Any team still in the competition will be wary of a move; which leaves an interesting array of clubs in the race.
Van Nistelrooy, first, has been linked with Europa League-bound Liverpool. The signing would probably be exactly what the Reds need as they seek a second fiddle to Fernando Torres, but Rafa Benitez has denied that there is any interest in luring the former Old Trafford favourite to Anfield.
The less glamorous Stoke showed some interest, but then found it difficult to get the deal off the ground and Birmingham, Blackburn and Bolton have since been thrown into the hat as possible destinations for the man who scored 150 goals in 219 appearances for Man Utd.
Given that the Dutchman would most likely favour a six-month loan move, any one of these could be possible but he would be most suited to Blackburn. With Benni McCarthy almost certain to leave, Sam Allardyce will be looking for a powerful frontman on the cheap and Van Nistelrooy will be able to get all the information he needs from former Rovers defender (and Dutch team-mate) André Ooijer, who only left Ewood Park in the summer.
Make no mistake, Van Nistelrooy would represent a massive coup for any one of these clubs. His injury record has meant he made only twelve appearances for Madrid in the past two seasons, but he showed the impact he can have at Euro 2008 - scoring two goals in the three games he played - and is still one of the finest finishers in the business if he is match fit.
His retirement from internationals after Euro 2008 may suggest that he has no interest in going to South Africa; but that would be to underestimate the lure of the World Cup. Van Nistelrooy has only played in one competition, 2006, as the Dutch did not make it to the 2002 edition. He was dropped for their second-round defeat against Portugal after starting all the group games (scoring one goal) and his memory of the tournament will not be a happy one.
Clashes with then-coach Marco van Basten saw him in and out of the following squads, but now Bert van Marwijk is in charge there is every chance he could return. Injury to Robin van Persie and the lack of form and opportunities for the Dutch side's other central striker, Klass-Jan Huntelaar, at Milan, means that the squad are in dire need of a goalscorer. A fit Van Nistelrooy, playing regularly, would be hard to ignore.
So, too, would be the midfield power of Patrick Vieira for France. Also 33-years-old, Vieira's time at Inter Milan has seen him pick up three Scudetto titles in succession, but he has made just 16 league starts for the club in the last two seasons.
Showing his frustration at his lack of opportunities, Vieira has been told by French coach Raymond Domenech to secure his future before he is considered for Les Bleus again. He has been attracting the interest of Manchester City (complete with former Inter manager Roberto Mancini), but Lyon and Barcelona have also made enquiries over his availability.
Of the three, struggling Lyon would probably be the most attractive proposition for the player as he would be back in his homeland and be able to compete for the central midfield role with Jeremy Toulalan and Jean Makoun, when the latter returns from the African Nations Cup.
His experience, desire and ability on the ball still make him a quality midfielder, but (as he proved when faced with old club Arsenal in 2006) he lacks the bite of old. He certainly wouldn't get a run in the Barcelona side once Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita return and one feels he would also struggle to hold down a place at Manchester City - with Vincent Kompany and Nigel de Jong first choice - if he chose to return to the Premier League.
The fact that Vieira wants a loan move gives him flexibility, but it is a dangerous balancing act between finding a club who will play him in almost every game and one that is beyond the reach of the international spotlight.
With both players keen to impress, it's possible that one of the lesser lights in Europe could get themselves a bargain in January. They may be past their prime, but both veterans will be looking to get themselves fit and into contention for their countries as June draws ever closer. Only time will tell if they have enough desire to make an impact on their coach's choices.