By Jonathan Birchall
The sub-plots whenever Chelsea and Manchester City meet these days are always fascinating. Britain’s two richest clubs locked in a battle to establish themselves as the Premier League’s brightest and biggest force under a spotlight that always seems to focus on the respective coaches.
But Sunday’s match-up will also this time play prelude to another fascinating contest between the two sides; a summer transfer battle that promises to dominate the headlines and potentially help shape which – if either – will have the best hope of overhauling Manchester United’s dominance next season.
The battle lines have already been drawn, transfer targets established – and, pertinently, shared – with Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani the precious objects of desire.
Chelsea’s interest in Atletico Madrid superstar Falcao, who has 20 goals in 21 Liga appearances this term, is long-standing. Owner Roman Abramovich was impressed by the Colombian forward’s devastating performance in August’s European Super Cup, in which he scored a sublime hat-trick against the European champions.
The Blues have already had brief, informal talks over a move for the Atletico forward, and it is understood that Chelsea have already earmarked a wage deal that would see the 27-year-old become one of Stamford Bridge’s top earners.
Meanwhile, with Mario Balotelli’s eventual departure from City having been widely expected for a number of months, plus question marks still hanging over the futures of both Edin Dzeko and Carlos Tevez, Etihad officials have made securing a world-class striker their number one target come the end of the season.
City chief executive Ferran Soriano and sporting director Txiki Begiristain are keen to sign a superstar who can provide significant revenue for the club through commercial channels, with the Premier League holders also set to begin their £10m-a-year kit deal with Nike at the beginning of next season. Falcao, who has a £48.1m release clause in his contract which expires in 2015 and was watched by Roberto Mancini at Atletico’s 2-1 defeat of Malaga four months ago, is seen as an ideal candidate.
However, there are a number of complications over a potential move for both clubs. The striker has spoken of his desire to see out his contract at the Vicente Calderon in recent days, telling Mundo Deportivo that remaining at the club for three more years would be the “best option” for him.
In addition, Real Madrid are also known to be keen admirers of the Colombian and with Los Blancos set for a presidential election this summer, prospective candidates will likely make significant moves to add another Galactico to the Bernabeu ranks, with Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain having underwhelmed during a disastrous domestic campaign for the club.
Typically, the omnipresent spectre of Madrid manager Jose Mourinho could also loom large over a summer bidding war for Falcao, with the striker partly-owned by a consortium including Jorge Mendes – agent to the Portuguese boss while he has, of course, been linked to replace both Mancini and Rafa Benitez come the end of the season.
As such, City and Chelsea are considering potential back-up plans to Falcao, with Napoli forward Cavani seen by many at both clubs as an able alternative.
The champions’ defensive coach Angelo Gregucci made City’s interest public in January, admitting that Mancini “wants” the Uruguayan, while Stamford Bridge officials are said to have also been heavily impressed by his performances this season, in which he has scored 27 goals in 29 games.
The race to sign one of Europe’s leading marksmen will be the third time that the country’s two wealthiest power houses have locked horns in the transfer market in just over a half a decade, when City were taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008.
City’s deadline day signing of Robinho from Real Madrid for a British record fee of £32.5 million, which followed Sheikh Mansour’s acquisition of the club on the same day, set in motion a ground-breaking and at times eye-watering off-field rivalry between the two clubs.
With Chelsea convinced that they had secured the Brazilian’s signature to the point that they were advertising shirts with his name printed on the back on their official website, the nouveau riche City embarrassed Abramovich, poaching the attacker at the 11th hour after enquiries over Mario Gomez, Dimitar Berbatov and Fernando Torres were unsuccessful.
However, Chelsea tasted revenge last summer, blowing both City and Manchester United out of the water to sign Eden Hazard for £32m, as the oligarch looked to build on the club’s Champions League success with moves for the Belgian, Marko Marin, Cesar Azpilicueta, Victor Moses and Oscar.
With concerns over the forthcoming Financial Fair Play regulations plus an unwillingness to fork out what they saw as excessive fees to Hazard’s agent John Bico, City admitted defeat in their pursuit of Hazard in late May. In the game of multi-million pound posturing, Chelsea had well and truly struck back.
So while this week’s clash between the country’s wealthiest clubs may hold little sway over this season’s title race, it is set to be another enthralling chapter in an even greater battle.
The chase for the Premier League’s next superstar is well and truly on.