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Free-kick to Ferguson with a bend for Real

David Beckham fell off the edge of Manchester United on the night his team fell out of Europe. The sumptuous free-kick with which the England captain brought the scores level and a tap-in close to the end were his application to join football’s greatest club. Old Trafford substitute one minute, Real Madrid luminary the next'

A deal is being worked on to take the game’s second most marketable player after Ronaldo to the Bernabeu. Sources say there is a 90 per cent chance of him starting next season in Spain. If it comes off he will be this year’s Castillian butterfly. Madrid have to have a new one every year.

Last year’s acquisition was Ronaldo — and Wednesday Brazil’s unbreakable goal monster destroyed United with a hattrick that will go down in Manchester legend.

For the second time in a week, Beckham started a vital United game in the stands. Arsenal last Wednesday, a Champions League quarter final second leg last night. This is serious stuff. His brace of goals in a 4-3 victory were a rebuke for his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who opted, in Paul Scholes’ absence, for Juan Sebastian Veron, who kept Beckham out until the 64th minute.

Ferguson’s anxiety about restoring him to his familiar position wide right was that Roberto Carlos had bewitched him in their three previous encounters. Beckham’s primary athletic weakness is an absence of natural pace. Knowing this, Brazil’s left-back has had no difficulty driving the Premiership’s best crosser and dead-ball specialist back into his own half. The word nemesis jumped to mind.

But the United manager’s preference for a converted striker (Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) in the right-winger’s shirt speaks of a deeper collapse in the Ferguson-Beckham relationship.

At 3-1 down in a Champions League quarter final, the natural expectation is that the manager summons his best 11 players and then worries about the formation later. Beckham’s name failed to appear and from that only one inference can be drawn. It would have been easy to save this one-man merchandising industry from Roberto Carlos by deploying him in a central midfield three, alongside Nicky Butt and Roy Keane. Instead, the boss preferred to gamble on Veron. And so it was that Beckham found himself sharing the worst seats in the house with Laurent Blanc, Darren Fletcher and Quinton Fortune.

‘The End’ was announced, by some, when Beckham was among the reserves for United’s potentially season-defining game at Highbury.

So now is the time to wonder where Beckham is going as a footballer — literally and figuratively. If you include the famous FA Youth Cup winning team from 1992-93, he has worn the red yoke with distinction for a decade. There is no earthly reason why a parting should be depicted as a tragedy.

Football clubs are moving organisms. They evolve. Beckham’s own development has stagnated to the point where skydiving into Madrid would awaken his senses, widen his technical repertoire and extend his celebrity still further.

There’s no point denying that Beckham’s sense of himself as a commodity is now highly developed. This explains why he told his Japanese fans he would “love to come back and play here”, and why interviews have begun appearing in American magazines such as Time. If the US is the last frontier commercially, the idea of Beckham in a Real Madrid shirt has its own special frisson, for both him and the club. Insiders at Real say the players there pick out Scholes and Giggs as the Mancunians they most admire. But they also understand Beckham’s value as a box-office missionary.

All over England the cry goes up: if he can’t get in Man Utd’s starting XI, how can he depose Figo or Zidane' Zidane is a master not just of the ball but time itself. Such craft, such powers of orchestration. Naturally, Ronaldo’s hattrick will be carved deepest in the Champions League’s tree of life, but it’s Zidane who makes possible those fizzing runs, those belting finishes. Ferguson, surely, was being mischievous when he suggested that the world’s most gifted playmaker merely “plays across you” and indulges himself with “tricks”.

No, United have been taught their harshest lessons for many a Champions League campaign. The first half at the Bernabeu aside, their tenacity and sense of ambition was beyond reproach. In both games they managed to shake Real’s composure. What they failed to do, though, was to stop the game’s best side from playing the way they love. There was a failure to negate, compounded by the sheer unstoppability of individual genius, which United fans can instantly recognise.

Their standing ovation for Ronaldo was proof of that. The next round of applause for a departing individual may yet be their farewell to Beckham.

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