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Stuff that matters

Never mind the Europa League final heartache, Manchester United, consider the emotion if Manchester City land Harry Kane. One word is despair, another couple may feature expletives.

Because this is what hurtles down the track when the transfer window opens as Pep Guardiola pursues the Tottenham and England captain to elevate to an already glittering squad. The bitterness of Wednesday’s 11-10 Europa League penalty shootout defeat by Villarreal could be followed by a waking nightmare for all at United: the sight of Kane shaking their rival manager’s hand as he signs for City.

The league champions hope to add the 27-year-old, who finished as the 23-goal Premier League golden boot winner and also topped the assists chart with 14. In becoming the third player to achieve this double, after Andy Cole and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Kane grows as the spectre that haunts Ole Gunnar Solskjær. City have just won the title by 12 points from United with no recognised centre-forward for large parts of the campaign.

They also won a fourth consecutive Carabao Cup and face Chelsea on Saturday in the Champions League final.

Land Kane, who wants a move, and the prospect of City’s 83 league goal tally going skyward would be a near-certainty. Sign an England captain hungry to land the first trophy of his career and who would bet against City winning another Carabao Cup, the FA Cup and reaching a second Champions League final in a row?

For United to stop this happening is simple to suggest and extremely difficult to do: ensure Guardiola does not add Kane to a cadre bursting with the attacking talent of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Ilkay Gündogan, Bernardo Silva, Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus by waving £200m at Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, and offering the player whatever terms he wants: £400,000 a week, the captaincy, shares in the club – go for broke to ensure City do not annex a footballer who could change the game for them, United and allcomers.

This last point is an exaggeration offered to show how even if the owners, the Glazers, sanction an all-out pursuit of Kane the question has to be asked: would United be his first choice?

Why would a man desperate to say farewell to his boyhood club only because the clock ticks on his time to secure honours choose a team that have won zero under Solskjær? A side that have lost four semi-finals and Wednesday’s Europa League showdown to Villarreal, whose stadium capacity of 23,500 fits three times and more inside Old Trafford, instead of the brilliant, winning machine that is City.

Put another way: if Guardiola wants you, especially if you are a No 9, a position he is not always convinced by, you possess something special and the manager is surely going to add a Y-factor to your X.

To row back to the bit about the Glazers needing to show ambition. Last summer United priced a deal for Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho at the thick end of €250m (including salary, add-ons, etc) and walked away. A year further into the pandemic and to sanction a transfer for Kane for approximately £70m more than United’s record £89.4m purchase of Paul Pogba would shatter a recruitment approach that while not parsimonious is certainly responsible.

But this is what is required. The view at Old Trafford may be that as Edinson Cavani has signed for another season Kane is not the priority and a revival of the Sancho deal, or a move for a midfielder such as West Ham’s Declan Rice, or a centre-back such as Villarreal’s Pau Torres should be. If so, this would be misguided. The question to ask is which player are the best team in the land pursuing and knowing the answer is Kane go after him to ensure they – City – do not disappear further into the distance.

Yet even if Kane is bought he offers no guarantees of a 21st league title. A telling measure of the gulf between United and City could be found at the Gdansk Stadium by peering a few rows along from the media seats during Wednesday’s final.

As Solskjær watched his misfiring side the eye went to the substitutes and who the manager could bring on to liven up the team. The choices were not inspiring. Beyond two goalkeepers – Lee Grant and Dean Henderson – was a not match-fit captain, Harry Maguire, other defenders Alex Telles, Axel Tuanzebe and Brandon Williams, the midfielders Fred, Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata and Donny van de Beek, and the forwards Dan James and Amad Diallo.

Choose the game-breakers from this list. Maybe, possibly, Mata, but can you imagine Guardiola plumping for a 33-year-old who has faded from the picture to rescue a cup final? Then there is Van de Beek, a puzzle of a £36m recruit the manager does not currently rate; James, who is erratic (at best); and Diallo, a 19-year-old with a Premier League start.

At City, Guardiola can name Silva, Sterling, Foden or even De Bruyne as substitutes and Torres, as at Newcastle, can come in and score a hat-trick. The United and City deputies just do no compare. It may be easy to be bleak after a cup final reverse but this is no knee-jerk analysis.

If David de Gea’s penalty had beaten Gerónimo Rulli and United gone on to win the trophy none of these hard facts would change. This is a crucial summer for the Solskjær project. He – and United – have to emerge with a squad bolstered in depth and a first XI elevated by a class or two. That means recruiting not only a Kane, but a Sancho, Rice and Torres, too.

Will it happen? Almost certainly not. A hunch says Sancho may be the sole elite recruit. But if there is no leap of quality then runners-up in the league and Europe’s second tier cup may be as good as it gets under Solskjær.