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Smiles better: Manchester United's signing of Cristiano Ronaldo from Sporting Lisbon in 2003 was one of the greatest transfer coups of all time
Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

With the January window now well and truly open for the season once again, we take a look back at the 20 greatest transfer coups of all time.

Now, in the dictionary, a coup can mean many things, one of which is "a stroke of genius," and these following moves all very much fall into that category...

Gary McAllister (Coventry City to Liverpool)

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MARTIN MEISSNER/Associated Press

Although only at Anfield for two seasons, the Scot’s arrival on Merseyside in the summer of 2000 from the Sky Blues proved to be the springboard behind the Reds’ subsequent treble-winning campaign.

All this at the grand-old age of 35, too.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Molde to Manchester United)

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David Rogers/Getty Images

A virtual unknown when the Norwegian forward arrived in the north-west in July 1996 for £1.5m, with many United fans at the time expecting the club to sign England striker Alan Shearer instead.

However, 126 goals later—including the winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final—and everyone at the Theatre of Dreams knew exactly who the baby-faced assassin was.

Edgar Davids (Milan to Juventus)

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Picked up from arch-rivals Milan in December 1997 for £5.3m after struggling to establish himself in the Rossoneri’s starting line-up, the "Pitbull" went on to prove the doubters wrong at the San Siro by becoming one of the very first names down on Juve coach Marcello Lippi’s team-sheet during seven trophy-laden years in Turin.

Patrick Vieira (AC Milan to Arsenal)

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Stu Forster/Getty Images

Snapped up for just £3.5m in August 1996 after wallowing in the reserves at San Siro, the leggy Frenchman went on to become one of Arsenal’s all-time greats, winning three Premier League titles and four FA Cups during his nine years in North London.

Nemanja Vidic (Spartak Moscow to Manchester United)

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Clive Mason/Getty Images

The Red Devils beat arch-rivals Liverpool to the imposing Serbian defender’s signature back in January 2006, with United boss Alex Ferguson paying Spartak just £7m to bring Vidic to Old Trafford.

Once again the Scot’s judgement of a player has been proved spot on, with the central defender having gone to establish himself as being one of the best in his position in the world.

Kolo Toure (ASEC Mimosas to Arsenal)

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Clive Mason/Getty Images

"Kolo who?" were the cries that accompanied the Ivorian’s arrival in North London in 2002 for a fee of just £150,000, although people by then really should have learned to trust Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger’s judgement in the transfer market.

And throughout the vast majority of his seven-year spell at Highbury, the versatile defender proved the Frenchman right, while the Gunners also went on to make a huge profit on the player when Manchester City splashed out a whopping £14m to sign Toure in 2009.

Gerard Pique (Manchester United to FC Barcelona)

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Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

The Catalans signed their former youth-team player for just £5m in May 2008.

Looking back now, that appears to be one of the steals of the century, the Spaniard having since blossomed into one of the most elegant and accomplished centre-backs in world football.

Diego Forlan (Manchester United to Villarreal)

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Christopher Lee/Getty Images

In August 2004, La Liga outfit Villarreal finally brought an end to the Uruguay international’s nightmare two-year spell at Old Trafford by signing the forward for just £2m.

But three years later and after netting 54 times in only 106 league outings for the Yellow Submarines, the Red Devils’ loss was very much the Spaniards’ gain.

Robin Van Persie (Arsenal to Manchester United)

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

A stroke of managerial genius from United manager Alex Ferguson lured the Netherlands international from the Emirates to Old Trafford in August 2012 for an initial outlay of £22.5m.

Very few had predicted that the forward would end up at the Theatre of Dreams, yet after 30 goals in only 48 matches in his debut campaign in the north-west, the Scot’s move for RvP was rightly considered to be the catalyst behind United retaining the Premier League that season.

Frank Lampard (West Ham United to Chelsea)

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When Chelsea shelled out £11m in order to bring the Englishman across London in June 2001, there were more than a few raised eyebrows that accompanied the midfield player’s arrival at Stamford Bridge.

However, no one is now questioning just what a coup it was by the West Londoners to land a player who has since gone on to become the Blues’ all-time record goalscorer—and from midfield, too.

Ian Rush (Chester City to Liverpool)

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David Cannon/Getty Images

In April 1980, Reds' boss Bob Paisley agreed to bring Welsh striker Ian Rush to Anfield for a fee of £300,000.

After a club-record 346 goals for the Merseysiders in 660 matches in all competitions—and a plethora of trophies, including five league titles and two European Cups—that transfer is still one of the best pieces of business that Liverpool have ever done.

Henrik Larsson (Feyenoord to Glasgow Celtic)

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DENIS DOYLE/Associated Press

The Swedish forward left Feneyoord for Parkhead in July 1997 in a deal worth £650,000 after a bitter contract dispute with the Eredivisie giants.

In his seven years at Celtic, Larsson won four Scottish Premier League (SPL) titles, two Scottish League Cups and two Scottish Cups, while he was also top scorer in the SPL in five of his seven seasons at the club, making the Swede without doubt one of the Hoops’ greatest-ever players.

Peter Schmeichel (Brondby to Manchester United)

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DAVE CAULKIN/Associated Press

Signed from Danish side Brondby in 1991 for just £505,000, the blond keeper went on to play 393 matches for the Red Devils in the following eight years, winning five Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the UEFA Champions League in the process.

The great Dane can rightfully lay claim to be the club’s greatest-ever goalkeeper, with manager Alex Ferguson subsequently describing Schmeichel’s capture as "the bargain of the century."

Gianfranco Zola (Parma to Chelsea)

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MAX NASH/Associated Press

For some still-unfathomable reason, Parma head coach Carlo Ancelotti did not rate the little Italian during their brief time working together at Emilia–Romagna in 1996, probably because he kept on insisting on utilising the playmaker as a left winger.

However, Chelsea were only too happy to take the attacking genius off the Serie A outfit’s hands in November 1996 for just £4.5m, with Zola having since gone on to be voted the Blues’ greatest-ever player by the club’s fans in 2003.

Javier Mascherano (West Ham United to Liverpool)

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VADIM GHIRDA/Associated Press

In the January transfer window of 2007, Reds' manager Rafa Benitez pulled off a major coup by luring the Argentina international from Upton Park to Anfield, initially on loan, before the player then agreed a four-year deal with the Merseyside giants a year later.

The total cost of the transfer, including the holding midfielder’s salary, was just £18.6m. When you consider this was the captain of the Argentina national team, it was quite some achievement by the Reds.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United)

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Everyone knows the story by now of how a young Ronaldo caught the eye of United’s players during a pre-season friendly in Lisbon in the summer of 2003, with the likes of Ryan Giggs then urging manager Alex Ferguson to move fast and sign up the young Portuguese.

Luckily for the Scot, United acted with haste and beat rivals Arsenal to the wide man’s signature, with Ronaldo arriving at Old Trafford for a fee of just €15m later that summer. Six years later, he was sold on to Real Madrid for a world-record £80m.

Denis Bergkamp (Inter Milan to Arsenal)

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Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Back in 1995, big-name players from the continent just did not sign for Premier League clubs, so Arsenal’s capture of the Oranje forward in June of that year was a major coup for the Gunners.

Do not forget either that this was still the pre-Arsene Wenger era at Highbury, with Bruce Rioch at the helm in North London at the time, making it an even bigger accomplishment by the club.

And to think that the Nerazzurri were happy to let Bergkamp depart the San Siro because they had Maurizio Ganz waiting in the wings...

Michael Laudrup (Brondby to Juventus)

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Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The brilliant Dane was on the verge of moving to Liverpool in the summer of 1983 before a late change of heart saw the playmaker opt to sign for the Old Lady of Italian football instead for a fee of just $1m.

And how the Merseysiders must have regretted that u-turn ever since, with Laudrup going on to prove himself to be one of the greatest attacking players of the last 30 years.

Ian Rush, his former team-mate at Juve, said of Laudrup: "He probably had the most individual skill I've seen. He was an incredible player."

Claude Makelele (Real Madrid to Chelsea)

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FERNANDO BUSTAMANTE/Associated Press

The French water carrier helped los Blancos win everything there was to during his time at the Santiago Bernabeu. However, there was one major problem and that was that Makelele’s face was just not recognisable enough to sell Madrid shirts around the world.

As a result, club president Florentino Perez offloaded the holding midfielder to Chelsea in the summer of 2003 for just £16.8m, sending the player on his way with these parting words:

We will not miss Makelele. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways.

He wasn't a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makelele to be forgotten.

Madrid have failed to win the UEFA Champions League in the 11 years since Makelele’s departure, while at Stamford Bridge the defensive midfielder continued his reputation as the best player in his position on Planet Football.

Eric Cantona (Leeds United to Manchester United)

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This was a move that happened by accident when Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson made an inquiry about United full-back Denis Irwin, only for his opposite number at the time, Alex Ferguson, then to ask whether the Frenchman was available.

To Fergie’s great surprise, United’s arch-rivals were indeed happy to let the mercurial forward move to Old Trafford, with Cantona signing for the Red Devils for just £1.2 million on Nov. 26, 1992.

And the rest, as they say, is history...

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