Manchester Untied were dealt a heavy blow on Tuesday as it became apparent that Nemanja Vidic, a loyal and exemplary leader to the club for eight years, would be leaving the club in the summer.
As Jamie Jackson of The Guardian reports, the player's agent, Silvano Martina, told Italian media that his client, out of contract in the summer, has several teams looking at him and is reluctant to prolong his stay at Old Trafford.
"Vidic is a very good player and will have no trouble finding a new club" he told Radio Crc in Napoli (given Martino's location, are we to assume Rafael Benitez's side could be a potential suitor?). He continued: "For the time being we are remaining calm. However, at the moment, I would rule out an extension with Manchester United."
Purchased for £7 million from Spartak Moscow in January 2006, Vidic has made almost 200 league appearances, with the Serbian playing a vital part in delivering many of United's trophies over the last few seasons.
To complement his five EPL titles, he was on the winning side of the 2008 Champions League final as Manchester United overcame Chelsea on penalties to capture the hallowed trophy on a rain-soaked pitch in Moscow.
Even after this news broke, the player showed professionalism to score what could prove to be a valuable goal in the first leg of their semi-final League Cup game on Tuesday night. Rising high to powerfully head home as United lost 2-1 at Sunderland, he deserved better than to be on the same side as a team who have lost three consecutive games.
But to further muddy the waters and compound United's misery, Rio Ferdinand—Vidic's partner at centre-back, fitness-pending—is also out of contract in the summer. Despite the club having an option to extend his deal for another year (something they do not have with Vidic), it is a very real prospect that United will lose the English centre-half in a double whammy, recouping no transfer fee from either player in the process.
As The Independent's Sam Wallace discusses, David Moyes may well forego major acquisitions in the Janaury transfer window—citing the fact that certain players simply aren't available and that an overhaul in the summer would make more financial sense.
With Vidic's looming exit, he can add one—maybe two—central defenders to that shopping list. Having produced some of the world's finest defenders imaginable (Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Claudio Gentile, Giacinto Fiachetti, etc) Italy's Serie A could represent a ripe place to purchase.
Let's explore potential imports who may pique the interests of Moyes, United and their fanbase.
Recognised as one of the finest and most regal defenders in Europe, signing Giorgio Chiellini would certainly assist David Moyes in placating a percentage of disgruntled United fans who are growing more vocal and vociferous.
Similarly to Vidic at United, Chiellini has been instrumental in helping his team achieve success. Exuding a never-say-die attitude, his dependable form has been pivotal as Juve cantered to the last two consecutive scudettos (for the first of which they remained unbeaten).
Five points clear at the top of Serie A and having last week disemboweled a previously-unbeaten Roma in a 3-0 win, they are on course for a third title, helped by Chiellini and his defensive comrades.
Preferring to play on the left hand-side of a defensive trident (alongside countrymen Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci), Chiellini marshals the back line, assuring that his team's 3-5-2 formation remains potent.
Four years ago, in January 2010, United plotted a £25 million bid to lure the defender away from the Old Lady, as reported by the Daily Mail.
In football terms, though, that interest may well have occurred last century. Since then, the Bianconeri have, in winning Serie A so impressively, shaken off the match-fixing Calciopoli controversy that previously dogged them and instead retained their title of Italy's most revered club.
At 29, now is surely the time when Chiellini either decides to move or stay put. United could quibble that his age, plus injury woes over last season, should reduce his value.
If Chiellini does prove to be out of United's price range, or if he is adamant of remaining a "one-club man" (a la Paolo Maldini), his Juve teammate Martin Caceres could be an alternative.
While it would not send the seismic shock waves around Europe about United's intent to return to power, Caceres is a player who has been frozen out. He has been linked with a move to the EPL for some time, as reported by talkSPORT, and has a reputation as a sleeping giant with unlocked potential. Could Old Trafford be the wake-up call he needs?
A tall and imposing defender, Mehdi Benatia has been imperious in helping Roma ascend to second place in the table.
Unbeaten in the 17 games preceding last weekend, Giallorossi travelled to champions Juventus, who they trailed by two points. On the receiving end of a 3-0 defeat, and after having had two players sent off, that gap is now five points.
Despite this disappointment, Benatia was a cause for optimism. Constantly subduing the lively Carlos Tevez, it is testament to the defender's credit that Roma conceded goals scored by a defender, a midfielder and a penalty.
Averaging 51 defensive interceptions per game (the fourth-highest in the whole of Serie A), Benatia thrives when playing as the fulcrum of a 4-3-3 formation, tasked with shoring up a back line.
Prior to the defeat at Juventus, Roma had conceded only seven goals in their 17 league games. As well as goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis, Benatia deserves the lion's share of credit, namely for the fact he has also contributed four goals.
Just before Christmas, The Independent's Charles Reynolds discussed the fact that Manchester United—who were reportedly unsuccessful in buying the player in the summer when he was still at Udinese—may swoop for the Moroccan international during this transfer window.
Due to Roma having not qualified for continental competition, Benatia has the extra advantage of being eligible to play in United's Champions League tie against Olympiakos.
With Roma having bought the 26-year-old for £11 million in the summer, it is conceivable they would look to make a profit on this. A bid of £20 million may be enough to force their hand.
Similarly to Manchester United, AC Milan are enduring a torrid season. Performing below expectations, they have a team full of international players who are simply not playing to their potential or playing in harmony (United fans can be grateful that at least their team is not in 11th place, eight points off relegation).
Despite this mediocrity, there is the occasional cause for optimism among the opprobrium. Chiefly, in Cristian Zapata they have a standout player.
While his mobility has been called into question, as well as his occasional profligacy from set pieces, he can contribute goals. As well as scoring the second in the 3-0 Champions League rout of Celtic, he also scored a valuable equaliser in the 2-2 draw against Roma last month.
The Colombian international has missed just one the team's 18 league games, having been omnipresent for all 90 minutes of all other games.
This show of strength has not gone unnoticed. In the weeks before Christmas, there was heavy speculation linking the 27-year-old with a move to United.
But despite Phil Neville—United coach and right-hand man to David Moyes—making several trips to personally scout the defender, according to Steve Bates of The Mirror, it looks like the player will ignore the overtures of the EPL champions.
Distancing himself from a move, he told Italian TV (h/t Alex Richards of The Mirror): "I am just thinking about Milan. I have a contract until 2016 and I want to stay here."
Whether he can be further swayed in the summer is an interesting caveat. But with Colombia expected to perform well in the World Cup in his native South America in the summer, United may have to move quickly before his price rises.
As Inter Milan's revival under Walter Mazzarri continues, Andrea Ranocchia is at the heart of this success, consistently submitting classy and imperious performances.
At almost two metres tall but lean and rangy, Ranocchia would not be a like-for-like replacement for the broad and powerful Vidic. Instead, he is in the mould of Rio Ferdinand: Blessed with a good turn of pace, he is astute and smart when tackling as well being dominant in the air.
Having been capped 12 times by Italy, he will certainly be on the Brazil-bound plane for this summer's World Cup (injury-pending, of course) as he vies for a starting berth in Cesare Prandelli's Italy squad.
This rise to the top has not gone unnoticed by clubs around Europe. The Independent's Charles Reynolds reported just before Christmas that United and Chelsea—both spurred on by Ranocchia's reluctance to renew his contract, which expires in June 2015—could bid for the player this January.
If either EPL team is to make a move, though, they should act quickly. As Charles Perrin of The Express described back in May, Zenit St Petersburg join United in being long-time admirers of the Italian.
After signing for Inter in June 2010, the former Genoa player has garnered a number of compliments from those within the Nerazzurri for his assured playing style.
Outgoing Inter president Massimo Moratti declared him to be "one of the best in the country in that position" (per The Express article above). And that is from the man who witnessed rivals AC Milan secure consecutive European Cups (the last team to do so) in the 1980s by employing world-class defenders as the catalyst for their revered catenaccio style.
At just 25, he would be a long-term acquisition who, with United being advocates of stability and longevity, would appeal for the fact that he could serve the club for years to come.
Tactically, Raul Albiol would be a superb fit for the Red Devils. Commanding and with a proven pedigree in La Liga and Serie A, he could forge a partnership with compatriot David de Gea, the United goalkeeper.
According to the Daily Star, Manchester United are historic admirers of Albiol. As Alicia Johnson wrote in September 2012, he was mooted as cover when the team had an injury crisis, namely for his versatility. That interest, however, stemmed from the old regime of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Signed from Real Madrid in July, the 28-year-old has missed only two league games so far for Napoli, helping the Partenopei overcome an indifferent start to obtain third position.
Currently 10 points behind leaders Juventus, it is unlikely that they can overcome that chasm to win the league, but in Rafael Benitez Napoli have one of Europe's most seasoned and experienced managers.
Playing alongside an arsenal of attackers—including Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon, Marek Hamsik and Dries Mertens—Albiol has, alongside Federico Fernandez, been a bedrock at central defence. Yet to score, the Spanish international can at least boast an 85 percent pass accuracy and averaging six vital clearances per game, according to Squawka.
At 28, he is no rookie and can bring a winning mentality that has been primed by playing a part in World Cup, European Championship, La Liga and Copa del Rey successes.
Albiol does, however, come with a caveat: Similarly to Benatia at Roma, he was only signed last summer. Benitez showed a lot of faith to bring the Spanish international to Italy at a time when his signings were being scrutinised (following his recent arrival).
Would Albiol be willing to jump ship after just one season in Serie A? An inevitably good showing from Spain in the World Cup may also see his value soar.