Soccer

Man Utd missed chance to sign their own Van Dijk before Maguire transfer

It is almost impossible to imagine Ruben Dias wearing anything other than a Manchester City shirt now after a standout debut campaign in England.

And yet, it could have all been so different if rivals Manchester United had got their way.

United scouts were spotted watching Dias along with Florentino Luis 18 months ago during Benfica’s 4-0 win over Braga. They were reportedly dazzled by his display and subsequently tabled an offer for the former.

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had made no secret about his desire to bring in a world-class centre-back, but their interest cooled when Benfica demanded Dias’ £80m release clause be met in full.

That was certainly no surprise given only a few days later, United paid a world-record £80m fee to complete the signing of Harry Maguire from Leicester City.

They could only afford one and at the time, it seemed a shrewd move: an England international with the best years of his career ahead of him and with a wealth of Premier League experience. City wanted him too, as previously revealed by Guardiola, but apparently could not afford him.

But seeing how the Portuguese defender has been a revelation for Pep Guardiola’s side since arriving in a £65million transfer from Benfica must produce a tinge of regret. The 23-year-old settled in quickly to his new surroundings and has formed an impenetrable partnership with a revitalised John Stones in City's back four.

Along with team-mate Ilkay Gundogan, he has been tipped as a frontrunner for PFA Player of the Year. Should he win, he would follow in the footsteps of Virgil van Dijk, who scooped the 2018-19 award, before helping Liverpool to their first league title in 30 years the next season.

It is certainly no exaggeration to suggest that Dias has, in essence, transformed City’s backline in the same manner as the Dutchman.

Guardiola’s men suffered an humbling 5-2 home defeat to Leicester at the start of the season, which is believed to have been the turning point in convincing the Catalan to sanction the deal to sign Dias — and it’s fair to say it has paid dividends.

Since his debut on October 3, Dias has made 29 appearances in the Premier League. Across those games, the champions-elect have kept 14 clean sheets and conceded only 15 goals.

His consistently solid performances have attracted praise from all quarters. But with City’s quest for a maiden Champions League triumph still unfinished, there were still some questions to answer over performances in big games.

Naturally, Dias passed his first examination with flying colours.

First, he marked Harry Kane out of the Carabao Cup final at Wembley on Sunday. Then, four days later, he snuffed out the threat of Kylian Mbappe in their 2-1 win over PSG in the Champions League semi-final first leg.

For the first time in Guardiola’s reign, they had the elite central defender they had been missing. Aymeric Laporte certainly fit this description on ability alone, but the French star has been plagued by injury problems since joining three years ago.

Head across to Old Trafford a year-and-a-half later, however, and doubts remain about whether United made the right decision in plumping for Maguire.

For the majority of his time in Manchester, the 28-year-old has fared well at the centre of the Red Devils’ backline. He was appointed captain by Solskjaer shortly after his arrival and tends to lead by example from the back.

Unfortunately, with such a price tag and responsibility comes criticism. And that became apparent when in the 3-3 draw with Everton recently, the blame was put firmly at Maguire’s feet after he made a calamitous error.

Some fierce, and perhaps unfair, comments followed, with Danny Murphy insisting Maguire would "never be Virgil van Dijk". For all of Maguire's qualities, he could well be correct.

If Dias manages to maintain this level of performance and even play an integral role in City’s potential Champions League triumph, he will join the Liverpool man in that exclusive winners’ circle.

Outside of it, the pain will be felt by the Man United board and fans after they had the opportunity to snap up their own version of Van Dijk — and missed it.

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