Last Friday Portuguese outlet Record revealed that Manchester United had “won the race” to sign Benfica and Argentina defender Ezequiel Garay.
“Ezequiel Garay will play at Manchester United next season,” read the report. “The English club have won the race for the Benfica centre-back, overcoming competition from Barcelona.”
The story was backed by Barcelona-based El Mundo Deportivo, who claimed United had agreed to pay the 26-year-old’s €20 million buyout fee.
“United have already agreed everything with the defender, who will leave [Benfica] in the summer,” they reported.
The story was first picked up by the Daily Express before finding its way onto countless English football websites, most of which merely re-packaged the Express account without acknowledging Record and El Mundo Deportivo.
All that said, transfer gossip only morphs from rumour to fact upon the unveiling of a player, and if last summer’s Lucas Moura saga taught us anything, it’s that even the moves that seem most likely to happen can be suddenly derailed. Most football clubs are fiercely protective of this sort of information, and while much of it can be believable—even true—it is usually based on educated guesswork and secondary sources. Bear that in mind regarding Garay.
What we do know is this: early last month Garay hired Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes to replace his previous representatives, with whom he parted in January.
Mendes, 47, counts the likes of Jose Mourinho, Pepe and Angel Di Maria among his clients and has previously orchestrated big-money moves to Manchester United—most notably those of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani from Sporting Lisbon and Anderson from Porto.
When he was retained by Garay it indicated a transfer was imminent, particularly given a bidding war between United and Barcelona that had raged for months.
Coincidentally, United scout Martin Ferguson—brother to club manager Sir Alex Ferguson—was in Portugal to watch Garay in a league match against Beira-Mar (as reported by Portugal’s Abola) the same weekend Mendes came into the picture, and United scouts were again in attendance on March 17 as Garay scored in Benfica’s 4-0 win over Vitoria Guimaraes (Daily Mail).
They had previously watched the player in a mid-January encounter against Porto and had also been to Benfica’s matches against Sporting Lisbon and Olhanense earlier in the season (Daily Mail). They also happened to take in a February friendly between Argentina and Sweden in which Garay started (O Jogo).
On Monday Garay dismissed the United rumours, telling Record he was only concentrating on Benfica and Argentina. But with the Lisbon giants engaged in a title battle with Porto he was never going to come out and confirm a story that already has plenty of evidence backing it.
At 26, it seems Ezequiel Garay is finally ready to make the leap Real Madrid expected he’d make when they signed him for €10 million from Racing Santander in August 2009.
Already an Olympic gold medalist for Argentina, he had impressed at the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada and caught everyone’s attention with a breakout season for Racing in 2006-07, when his nine goals helped the Cantabria side to a respectable 10th-place finish in La Liga.
He was never able to replicate that sort of form in the Spanish capital, although a series of injuries, a managerial merry-go-round and an already-installed pecking order in the centre of defense combined to deny him a fair opportunity. He wasn’t the first Madrid player to suffer a similar fate, and he won’t be the last.
In 2011 he joined Benfica for €5.5 million and helped the Lisbon side to the league cup the following spring, playing a career-high 37 matches in all competitions—a number he’s on-pace to surpass this season.
At 6-foot-4, Garay is an intimidating physical presence, but it’s his instincts and skills on the ball that make him such a sought-after defender. There is a certain elegance to his movement, and his first pass out of the defensive third is typically quite useful.
There’s a reason Garay is being touted as the natural replacement to Rio Ferdinand at Manchester United.
Ferdinand, in his prime, was among the best in the world at bringing the ball from the defensive third to the attack, whether by an accurate first pass or an instinctive run up-field. He also provided his attacking teammates an outlet from a high position—something Garay does regularly.
At Benfica Garay has combined well with the Brazilian Luisao, who is more of a stay-at-home defender. The thinking is he’d also work well in tandem with United captain Nemajna Vidic, and even if the 34-year-old Ferdinand and 31-year-old Vidic continued to see playing time, chances are age and injury would limit the minutes of at least one of them next season, as has happened in each of the last two campaigns.
As far as the financial implications are concerned, Sir Alex Ferguson is known to stay away from prospective deals that involve third parties—something that could be a problem with Garay.
When Madrid sold the player to Benfica they preserved a 50 per cent sell-on fee, so they’re due to receive €10 million if this transfer goes through. The complication arises with a group called Benfica Stars Fund—a third party that purchased 10 per cent of Garay’s rights in 2011 for €1.175 million.
Benfica Stars Fund is essentially an investment organization that allows entities unrelated to the club itself to buy an interest in its assets. They reaped a quarter of Benfica’s profits from David Luiz’ sale to Chelsea and skimmed 20 per cent from Angel di Maria’s move to Real Madrid. Their current holdings include highly-rated Portugal striker Nelson Oliveira, Paraguay forward Oscar Cardozo, Brazilian playmaker Bruno Cesar and Garay.
Likelihood of Ezequiel Garay moving to Manchester United this summer: 8/10.