Sir Alex Ferguson has no intention of letting Gerard Pique leave Manchester United.
Pique launched United on their way to last night's 4-0 Champions League hammering of Dynamo Kiev as the Red Devils sealed their place in the knock-out phase with two games to spare.
Yet the Spain Under-21 international's well-taken header only heightened speculation that he might be leaving United when the transfer window opens in January.
Pique spent last season on loan at Real Zaragoza and impressed the La Liga outfit so much they returned to Old Trafford with a 'big bid' to sign the Barcelona academy product.
Ferguson politely declined, then made it quite clear Pique would be one of the youngsters who would remain at Old Trafford in the wake of September's Carling Cup debacle against Coventry.
The 20-year-old's lack of recent match practice has put more of Europe's most highly-regarded clubs on red alert, with Atletico Madrid, who boast former Red Devil Diego Forlan in their squad, heavily linked with a bid for Pique.
United though are determined to keep their man.
Having invested so much time in Pique since he originally arrived from Spain as a raw teenager, Ferguson can see no point in allowing him to depart now just as he is starting to fulfil his potential.
"I am not surprised people are saying they are interested in him," said Ferguson.
"Zaragoza tried to buy him in the summer. They offered a lot of money for him. But no. The boy's future is here.
"I have no fears for him. The course we have set is a good one and there is absolutely no intention of letting him go."
Pique's frustration at a failure to make a long-term breakthrough at United could only been exacerbated by the knowledge that the Premier League's other high-profile acquisition from Barcelona's youth ranks, Cesc Fabregas, is now setting the world on fire at Arsenal.
Ferguson has attempted to point out to both Pique and his parents subtle differences in physicality. Not only does the United manager believe Pique was slightly behind in his development, as a defender he needed to be stronger anyway, hence the loan deal with Zaragoza.
"Because he came through the youth system at Barcelona with Fabregas, who got into the Arsenal team as a much younger age, we had to impress on Gerard his physique was nothing like that of Fabregas," said Ferguson.
"Being a centre-half, he needed time to strengthen and get more experience as a defender. That was what his loan spell at Zaragoza was about.
"Both Gerard and his parents understood that completely.
"In the end, he played 25 games for them and did very well.
"He got more experience, he got tougher and he became a lot stronger. He is coming along the right way."
Ferguson's faith in Pique is so great, he even raised the prospect of the youngster emulating the likes of Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Gary Neville, whose emergence in the mid-90s signalled the end at United for Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis.
It wasn't quite a message of warning for Rio Ferdinand, who was rested last night, but the implication of what could happen was fairly clear.
"There is always someone turning a corner in football," said Ferguson.
"Young players break through here. This club is famed for that.
"Sometimes you are forced to make a change simply because you cannot keep these young lads out of the team any longer.
"Gerard understands perfectly well the form of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, who are tremendous players, has been so good, he is going to have to wait a bit.
"But waiting is not a problem for a 20-year-old. He will have many opportunities to play when I need to rest defenders and I have the great option of being able to play him in midfield or at right-back."
However, Pique will find himself back on the bench at best on Sunday when United tackle in-form Blackburn at Old Trafford.
Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Owen Hargreaves will all return, while Edwin van der Sar should play despite reporting pain from a previously broken toe at half-time last night, triggering the introduction of Tomasz Kuszczak.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
Ferguson: "Pique's Staying Put"