The temptation for Sir Alex Ferguson to start planning for life without Cristiano Ronaldo grows with every passing week.
The Manchester United boss fought tooth and nail to cling to his most-prized asset last summer, rebuffing the repeated overtures of Real Madrid, even when Ronaldo himself admitted a move to Spain held great appeal.
Ferguson is a wizened old veteran and plays the political game as well as he marshals his troops on the field. Only one person knows truly what is going on within that remarkable soccer brain.
However, the pieces are starting to fit together, shaping a picture of a post-Ronaldo era that could be more successful for United than the current one.
Ferguson even took the step of publicly reprimanding Ronaldo for his petulant on-field behavior this past week – which must have been music to the ears of fans around the English Premier League who have long lamented the Portugal star's amateur dramatics.
The emergence of 17-year-old Federico Macheda, scorer of game-winning goals for the past two weeks, has reminded the soccer world that United has a seemingly endless conveyor belt of young talent – just like it has for decades.
Then there are the continued rumors linking Ferguson with a summer swoop for Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery, a live-wire playmaker in the Ronaldo mold, and with huge potential.
Real Madrid would still be prepared to fork out around $100 million for Ronaldo, which would leave Ferguson with the means to replace the aging stars of his squad like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs when they retire.
Furthermore, there is increasing uncertainty over financial matters at Old Trafford, with the owning Glazer family reportedly nursing debts of more than $1.5 billion.
Ferguson would never accept a situation where his transfer activities were dictated by the ownership group, but he will be aware that the chance to bring such a heavy fee for Ronaldo could loosen the purse strings for other deals.
Ever since Ronaldo arrived at United, he has enjoyed a relatively seamless love affair with the club. The love may remain, but the affair looks to be heading toward its conclusion.
Weekend First XI
1. Get him an Advil
Cagliari's Diego Lopez was just one victim of violence on a turbulent weekend in Italian soccer. With emotions high following the tragic earthquake in the Abruzzo region, animosity spilled over between fans at several Serie A games. At Fiorentina, it spilled over to the players, with Lopez apparently attacked by Fiorentina players following his team's 2-1 defeat.
2. Get him a beer
Kansas City Wizards veteran Davy Arnaud is heading toward the twilight of his MLS career but has gained a newfound vigor by playing at forward this season, after years in defense. Arnaud struck with a stunning long-range effort on Saturday to lead the Wizards to a 1-0 victory over the previously undefeated Seattle Sounders.
3. Get him some earplugs
Jose Mourinho can expect a hostile reception when his Inter Milan side visits Juventus next week. Mourinho has confidently predicted a comfortable victory that would effectively clinch the Serie A title, but Juve might have other ideas.
4. Four corners
• Will the prospect of giant stadiums and established infrastructure be enough to get the United States the 2022 World Cup?
• Does AC Milan really want Kaka to stay or is it playing clever soccer politics?
• What's next for out-of-luck Glasgow Rangers keeper Allan McGregor?
• Can a move to Turkey revitalize Adriano's career?
5. Catch a flight to …
Porto. The vibrant Portuguese city is a good place to be at any time – and Wednesday's Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Manchester United is the pick of the midweek action.
6. A round of applause for …
The unfortunate players of Argentinean First Division side San Lorenzo. They need someone to give them a clap after being booed by their own fans for the entirety of their 1-0 home defeat to Velez Sarsfield, the latest in a series of dreadful results.
7. Get them a Kleenex
Marcos Senna. The influential Spanish midfielder will be sorely missed by Villareal as it visits Arsenal this week, after he was ruled out with a hamstring injury.
8. Get ready to say hello to …
Christian Vieri. Reports in the Italian press have linked the veteran striker with a move to the L.A. Galaxy. We'll believe it when we see it.
9. Get ready to say goodbye to …
Chris Birchall. The Galaxy was confident of signing the Trinidad and Tobago international from English League One strugglers Brighton and Hove Albion – but the move was blocked by Brighton chairman Dick Knight.
10. Get excited about …
Federico Macheda, of course. Who else?
11. Why it's good to be a soccer player
Take a look at Lena Muhlbacher, wife of Bayern Munich and Germany midfielder Tim Borowski.