Transfer mysteries

AMIDST the predictably frenetic activity in this summer's European transfer market, there has been many a mystery. Why, for example, after two past summers of brinkmanship, did Arsenal finally sell Patrick Vieira to Juventus for �13.5 million? And why were their major efforts thereafter seemingly concentrated on prising the Brazilian striker, Julio Baptista, from a reluctant Seville, even to the extent of risking condign punishment by sending manager Arsene Wenger and key executive David Dein all the way to Sao Paolo to attempt to persuade him? This, after furiously initiating a Premiership tribunal with concomitant heavy fines for Chelsea, Jose Mourinho and Ashley Cole, their London rivals being guilty of tapping up the England left-back shamelessly in a Lancaster Gate hotel?

Then there's the matter of Liverpool and all those strikers. They paid Southampton nearly �7 million for the lanky six-foot seven Peter Crouch. Now I have no intention of disparaging Crouch and his true talents. Indeed I've been an admirer of the towering centre-forward since, some years ago, the Queens Park Rangers manager Gerry Francis brought him back to the Shepherds Bush club from Spurs, where he had hardly kicked a ball. Crouch, born and brought up just round the corner from QPR, showed us then that despite his great height he is by no means a mere header of the ball. In fact he has two very good neat feet and a sophisticated approach to the game.

Leaving QPR, he found things hard at Aston Villa, better at Portsmouth and better still at Southampton. In fact we know that he won his first England cap as a Southampton player on tour in New Jersey, against the Colombian national team, successfully.

Yet Liverpool already had an abundance of strikers. So much was underlined when, late in July in Lichtenstein, they won 4-3 against the Greek team, Olympiakos, Crouch led the Liverpool attack in the first half and, albeit after a couple of stumbles and a lucky deflect job, set up the first Liverpool goal for the Spaniard Garcia. That other Liverpool Spaniard, Xabi Alonso, praised him after the game, emphasising, as I have adumbrated, that Crouch has plenty to offer not only in the air but on the ground.

Yet the star of Liverpool's show in the second-half was beyond doubt the Czech striker, Milan Baros, who cleverly set up one goal, and himself scored two others. This was the Baros whom we had seen and admired, playing for his country in Portugal, in Euro 2004. Yet it was an open secret that the Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez couldn't wait to sell him. After that successful game, Baros' agent announced that the player would stay at Anfield for at least two weeks. It was also mooted that Aston Villa had been told that Baros would cost them �7 million, and that several other clubs, not surprisingly, were interested in him. Alonso's main point was that those clever feet of Crouch could usefully hold up the play, whereas last season Liverpool's attacks had too often broken down because the front men couldn't do so.

But hold on a minute. Who scored the Liverpool goal against the Greeks, which Baros made? None other than Fernando Morientes, bought last season by Liverpool from Real Madrid after he had a prolific season with Monaco, a veteran Spanish international striker with a notable goal-scoring record. And the club spent a fortune on the swift French international striker Djibril Cisse, who missed so many games last season with injury but now seems fully fit again.

When one listened to Wenger after a pre-season July friendly against humble Barnet, it was to hear him say, apropos of Patrick Vieira, that there was always the chance that a young player would break through. After all, he told us, Vieira himself was pretty well unknown when he arrived at Highbury in the summer of 1996. But this was blatantly begging the question. When Vieira left Milan for Highbury, it cost all of �3.5 million and he was already a French Under-21 international. Arsenal, too, have two good young midfielders in the precocious teenaged Spaniard Cesc Fabregas and the lively Frenchman, Mathieu Flamini, but neither has the sheer power and authority of Vieira.

So why did they let him go? One asks once again. Was their patience simply exhausted after his brinkmanship of the previous two summers; it is said that last year he had even cleared out his locker at the club's London Colney ground. I doubt that. It seems more likely that after his somewhat diminished and disappointing form last season — had his commitment waned as some thought — the club felt that even at the age of 29 they had had the best of him. Which always, as some close to the Gunners suggest, does not exclude that he could recover his old form and impetus in Turin. How would the Gunners look then?

Another summer surprise, this time at managerial level, was the decision of my old friend Giovanni Trapattoni, whom I've known since he played for Italy's Under-21 team in the 1960 Olympics, to leave Benfica, whom he'd just guided to the Portuguese Championship, for VfB Stuttgart of the Bundesliga. A club not qualified for Europe and which had just sold two of its best players, Alexander Hleb of Belorussia to Arsenal, international German striker Kevin Kuranyi, as well. True Jon Dahl Tomasson has arrived from Milan, but though Trap won the German title once with Bayern Munich, his still seems a strange decision.

Yet, surely the daftest decision of the close season summer has been Southampton's and Chairman Rupert Lowe's to take on board as senior executive the England and Lions Rugby manager Sir Clive Woodward. If only Woodward had quit while he was ahead, having managed the England Rugger team to a famous victory applauded in the streets of London in the Rugby World Cup. Since then even in Rugby, which at least he knows something about, it has been downhill all the way.

Downhill with England and horribly, embarrassingly downhill in New Zealand with the British Lions who far from roaring were whitewashed, humiliated, in three Tests by New Zealand. Tests, especially the first, in which Woodward chose the manifestly wrong team from his bloated squad. All this compounded by his idiotic, self-aggrandising decision to enrol as a publicist none other than the tarnished Alastair Campbell, spin master for Tony Blair and the Government, a widely detested figure. With predictable consequences, when Campbell, who knew nothing of Rugby, got to work on his misbegotten spinning.

Saints' manager Harry Redknapp says he won't resign because of Woodward but what with that and the way his key players have been sold since relegation, don't, as they say, hold your breath.