Raising the bar

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Prepare for sightings of Roberto de Assis, the brother and agent of Ronaldinho, all over Europe in the coming weeks.

Ronaldinho's disappointing season may have reached a premature end following the muscle injury he suffered in training with FC Barcelona last week, but his brother has been busy, preparing the way for the almost inevitable transfer from Barcelona.

Last week, de Assis was spotted in Italy, meeting with AC Milan vice president Adriano Galliani. Though they were more likely to be discussing the future of another of de Assis' clients, Ricardo Oliveira, who is currently on loan from Milan at Real Zaragoza. Still, that didn't stop Gazzetta dello Sport publishing photos of de Assis' meeting with Galliani and speculating that Ronnie could be on his way to the San Siro.

A few days later, de Assis was a guest of Manchester City at its Premiership game against Chelsea, leading to the inevitable speculation that Ronaldinho would be heading to the City of Manchester stadium next season.

Both stories were followed a few days later by de Assis' declaration that "Ronnie is happy at Barça. He has a contract until 2010 and I am not looking for anything."

That may be true, but what is also unavoidable is that Barcelona has, for some time, been laying the ground for Ronaldinho's possible departure.

Barça coach Frank Rijkaard continues to insist in public that Ronaldinho is still an important part of his plans. But in private, the club has done to little to discourage a whispering campaign in the Catalan press about the Brazilian's colorful private life.

The emergence of Leo Messi as a bona fide star in the past 18 months has weakened Ronaldinho's position, with key figures within the Barça boardroom arguing that the club should cut its losses with Ronaldinho and throw its weight behind new hero Messi.

The remarkable thing is that Ronaldinho is still only 28 years old. He may have had a poor season by his own high standards, but he is arguably about to enter the peak years of his career.

The link with Manchester City appears to be a tenuous one, especially as City manager Sven-Göran Eriksson was as surprised as anybody to read about City's possible bid for Ronaldinho. But City will not be the last club to be linked with the megastar before the summer transfer window cranks open for business.

Chelsea will, inevitably, be linked with Ronaldinho because of owner Roman Abramovich's declared admiration for him. But Chelsea's transfer priorities are likely to lie elsewhere if, as expected, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba move on.

Although Nicolas Anelka hasn't played that many games since joining from Bolton in January, it may well be that Chelsea bought him precisely because it expects Drogba to depart in the summer.

In a bid to join new clubs, Drogba and Lampard could be among the first high-profile players to invoke what has become known as the Webster ruling. A few months ago, Scottish defender Andy Webster won the legal right for players age 28 and older to move on after two years of their contract (three years if younger than 28).

So the likes of Lampard and Drogba could move for a fraction of the fees that their clubs would have expected on the open market. Certainly, we're unlikely to see major bidding wars that result in telephone-number fees being paid.

Lyon has already extended and improved the contract of wunderkind Karim Benzema, one of the potential stars of the European Championship, in a move which will keep him in the French league for at least another season. Meanwhile, Stuttgart has, somewhat optimistically, said it will consider offers in excess of $60 million for Mario Gomez, another potential star of Euro 2008.

Lampard and Drogba, not to mention the likes of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar of Ajax and Sevilla's Luís Fabiano, will feature prominently in transfer speculation over the coming months. But it's going to be hard to outdo Ronaldinho for column inches. His brother will see to that.

Gavin Hamilton is the editor in chief of World Soccer Magazine. He contributes to SI.com on alternate Tuesdays.