COMMENT: Bruno Fernandes and Manchester United. This isn't about money or valuations. It's about belief. It's about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and whether he really does believe Fernandes is capable of meeting expectations.
As we write, the deal is still on. Negotiations haven't collapsed and there's a determination to find an agreement. The presence of a United delegation in Lisbon overnight and this morning proof enough that talks with Sporting CP are ongoing.
But the hesitation on United's side does raise doubts. Fernandes won't be arriving as a stop-gap. As an instant hit. At 25, his signing is being made with a view to the mid- and long-term. And this is where it really gets down to crux of it...
Can Solskjaer actually see Fernandes as an established leader three years down the line? Is the Sporting captain a player to build a midfield around? A midfield capable of winning the Premier League?
If the answer is 'yes', then you pay the fee, don't you? €80m for a five-to-seven year player. Another foundation stone in a team being built for the long-term. An argument that was made by Solskjaer (and Sir Alex Ferguson) to the board regarding Harry Maguire and his world record fee. After all the hesitation from Ed Woodward, United's vice-chairman, when Jose Mourinho pushed for the Leicester City defender to be signed, the assertion of Solskjaer made greater sense. If the United manager feels the same way about Fernandes, then you fancy the deal will be made.
So why the delays? Well, Solskjaer is breaking new ground with Fernandes. The Portugal international will be the first of his signings to arrive from abroad. There'll be hope of an instant impact. But the likelihood will be Fernandes won't get near his best until next season. So Sporting, with their high price demands, have sparked a new back-and-forth amongst United's football staff this past week. Do they pay for Fernandes now and spend the next six months bedding him into the rigours of English football? Or do they wait until the summer and offer similar money to Leicester for James Maddison or Jack Grealish at Aston Villa? For the moment, with United representatives in Lisbon this morning, Solskjaer is staying the course.
For this column, it's a good call. Fernandes will arrive as an upgrade on Jesse Lingard. And the form and presence of Fred in United's midfield should accelerate his acclimatisation. Having a fellow Portuguese speaker on the pitch cannot be underestimated.
But if doubts remain, perhaps an endorsement from Mourinho can ease the anxiety. Speaking earlier this season about Tottenham's summer attempts for Fernandes, Mourinho was unequivocal. At Spurs' last offer of €45m, it was still short of Fernandes' true valuation. And for the player Mourinho has watched develop these past 18 months, Tottenham wasn't the stage he should be leaving Sporting for.
"I would definitely say no because Bruno is a player of a level and value that is not for us," the Spurs manager said last month. "We are not a club that is going to make big transfers in the market, nor is it going towards players who are already developed or at a certain level of expectation, also economically."
So if €45m is lowballing Sporting, then are United right to hesitate in getting closer to their current price? For Mourinho, clearly not. He was right about Maguire 18 months ago and for Woodward, if Solskjaer is convinced, the former United manager should be listened to again.
But what about the expectations going into this January market? Over Christmas, it wasn't about finding a new No10. It was on the agenda, sure, but it wasn't a priority. That went to a new No9. A goalscorer to ease the burden on an overworked Marcus Rashford.
The simple case is, Solskjaer has been rocked. Blindsided. It can't be overstated how confident he was of bringing Erling Haaland to the club this month. And while he views the intervention of Mino Raiola and to a lesser extent Erling's father, Alf-Inge, as simply 'football business', the United manager does feel let down.
While Fernandes is the focus now, in terms of easing the pressure on Rashford, Solskjaer is having to start again.
"We'll add to them," said Solskjaer when discussing his young front three of Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood on Friday. It's front of mind. But Borussia Dortmund's willingness to play ball with Raiola and Haaland Snr has United back at the drawing board in terms who to "add".
In the meantime, it's all about Fernandes. Sporting and their valuation are just bit-part players in this one. If United do relent and raise their offer, we'll know it's because the manager believes Fernandes can grow with this developing Manchester United team.