By Neil Robinson
LONDON (Reuters) – As Manchester United prepared to fly to Australia for their pre-season tour this weekend, their unsettled midfielder Paul Pogba enjoyed himself thousands of miles away in New York.
The 26-year-old Frenchman took to social media to post videos of himself jogging in Central Park, working out in the gym and even kicking the tops off bottles as part of the latest viral internet craze.
None of that will concern United too much as they have given their midfielder permission for an extended holiday after a non-stop schedule stretching back to last year’s World Cup.
Much more troublesome and difficult for the club to deflect are last week’s remarks by Pogba’s agent who said his client intended to leave United.
“Everyone knows the willingness of Paul to move on. We are in the process of that,” said Mino Raiola in an interview with the Times newspaper.
The outburst ignited a predictable frenzy of speculation with Real Madrid, widely touted as his favoured destination, reported to be putting together a player plus cash bid involving Gareth Bale and Isco.
Whether Pogba joins United on their tour or not, the transfer talk is certain to accompany them around Australia, Singapore and China. Officially, the midfielder is due to join the rest of the squad this week, before their first game against Perth Glory on July 13, but United must make a quick call on how much disruption they are willing to tolerate.
There appear to be parallels between his situation and that in 2017 of Philippe Coutinho, who successfully forced a move from Liverpool to Barcelona even though he was under contract.
Once Coutinho’s agent went public on the player’s desire to leave, Liverpool knew they had to talk money and struck a 142 million pound ($178 million ) deal the following January that now looks inspired as it paid for Alisson and Virgil van Dyke, who turned them into Champions League winners.
Even though United are not required to sell as Pogba has two years remaining on his contract, with the club having the option of a third, they will be guaranteed a barrage of questions about their intentions on touch down in Australia this week.
And all this for a player who disappointed fans with a series of low-key performances last season which culminated in clashes with angry supporters in the final-day defeat by relegated Cardiff at Old Trafford.
None of that appears to have lowered his price, with British media reporting that United require a bid of 150 million pounds ($187.83 million) to cash in on a player they signed for a then world-record 89 million pounds from Juventus in 2016.
The Italian club have also been cited as a possible destination but Real Madrid are the most likely end point as manager Zinedine Zidane puts together a new-look side already including close-season purchases Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic.
Unlike Liverpool, United are not used to selling against their will although one exception, Cristiano Ronaldo, also ended up at Real Madrid almost exactly 10 years ago. On that occasion, United found the fee irresistible and logic suggests they will reach the same conclusion this time round.
For all his occasional flashes of brilliance, Pogba has never reproduced at club level the brilliance of his World Cup- winning form for France in 2018 and has appeared lost in a sulk ever since.
If United are serious about giving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the chance to forge a brighter future after the turbulence of the post-Alex Ferguson years, there seems one logical place to start.
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(Reporting by Neil Robinson; editing by Clare Lovell)