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Football: RONNIE BARCA; Be afraid, Fergie..Cristiano's agent sat next to Barcelona's chief scout.. and he won't take Nou for an answer.

Byline: Mike WALTERS

CRISTIANO RONALDO'S future at Old Trafford was plunged deeper into doubt last night after a senior Barcelona official admitted meeting the Manchester United winger's agent in London.

Txiki Begiristain, Barca's technical director, sat next to Ronaldo's representative Jorge Mendes during Portugal's shock 2-0 friendly win against Brazil at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.

But Begiristain, accompanied on his trip by the Spanish giants' chief scout Pepe Costa, denied discussing a move for Ronaldo with Mendes - even though Barcelona are exploring a possible pounds 45million bid.

United have already made it explicitly clear that Ronaldo is not for sale at any price, and that they are ready to double his current pounds 50,000-a-week wages.

After being stunned by Thierry Henry's refusal to quit Arsenal last summer, however, Barcelona are determined not to miss out on another high-profile target.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will be hopping mad if he suspects Ronaldo is being tapped up, four years after he lost another legend in the No.7 shirt - David Beckham - to Spanish predators Real Madrid.

Ronaldo, 22, has yet to pledge his unqualified loyalty to United despite Barcelona's preliminary overtures and he was booed mercilessly by Brazilian ex-pats at the Emirates after his latest 'diving' storm two miles down the Seven Sisters Road at Tottenham last Sunday.

And United will view with suspicion Begiristain's claim that his meeting with Mendes, who also represents Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, was innocent and planned "some time ago". The Barca chief protested: "I did not come to London to meet and discuss Cristiano Ronaldo, but I did see Jorge Mendes, who is a very good friend of mine.

"I have known him for a long time and he represents many Barcelona players.

"We must be represented at these events and I limit myself to doing my job, which is to go and watch football matches."

But Portuguese pal Deco believes he will join him at Barcelona.

The 29-year-old forward said: "Cristiano's one of the best players in the world, and a player that everybody wants. It will be hard for him to leave Manchester United but I believe he'll come to Barcelona. I enjoy watching him." Ronaldo, leading contender for Footballer of the Year, was made captain for the night against Brazil to fulfil the dying wish of Portuguese FA vice-president Carlos Silva.

But the United fall-guy's pre-match plea - for the booing which has become the soundtrack to his career to stop - was ignored. His captain's cribsheet included seven stepovers, two goal attempts, being fouled seven times and being singled out for concerted booing for each of his 21 touches of the ball. Although he has claimed in the past that he is motivated by the premeditated contempt of opposition fans, Ronaldo did not seem amused by his experience at the Emirates.

He said: "I was proud to captain my country, but I don't care about that (booing) - I'm not going to change the way I play and the result was the most important thing.

"It's not the first time it has happened. For the past year I've been booed, but my reaction is always the same: I'm very calm about it."

CAPTION(S):

DON'T BE A FALL: Ronaldo gets a helping hand from Brazil's Elano during Tuesday's friendly at the Emirates Stadium; NO THANKS: Henry tosses away a Barca scarf thrown at him during the Champions League final
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 8, 2007
Words:568
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