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Wheeling and dealing in the EPL


Credit crunch and slow economy be damned, the soccer world is still spinning from the record-busting $131 million fee Real Madrid is on the verge of pumping into Manchester United's coffers for FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. That's on top of the $92 million the mysteriously loaded Spaniards already paid for last year's World Player of the Year, Kaká. But there's far more to come in the transfer market. This week, we run through the English Premier League looking at possible transfer targets, and who might be heading for the exit door.

Ronaldo to Real, plus Carlos Tévez to Manchester City, Chelsea or one other "unnamed" club, equals a large creative black hole for Man. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The Scotsman has dealt with these kinds of big-name departures in the past, however, and has been able to fill these sorts of holes. Éric Cantona's departure in 1997 meant the promotion of a young David Beckham to the first team. Beckham himself was replaced six years later by a certain Portuguese unknown by the name of Ronaldo. But does Fergie have the replacement lined up to make up for this year's exodus?

Several names have been mentioned, but United has been frustrated so far in its quest for replacements. Knowing that Man U is sitting on such a sizable war chest, clubs appear to be upping their asking prices. United has offered Wigan Athletic $20 million for Ecuadorian winger Antonio Valencia -- Wigan wants $29 million. Bayern Munich has said it will take offers in excess of $80 million to pry away star midfielder Franck Ribéry, irrelevant of the fact that the Frenchman seems to have his heart set on a move to Real Madrid. Fellow Frenchman Karim Benzema's club, Lyon, has said it's not selling until after next summer's World Cup.

Spanish-based strikers Sergio Agüero and David Villa are the latest players to be linked to United. Agüero, Diego Maradona's future son-in-law, has a buyout clause in his contract of $85 million, which will probably put off Ferguson. And with Villa this week stating his desire to stay in Spain, and Real Madrid withdrawing from the race for his signature, the Spanish hotshot appears to be bound for Barcelona.

Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez is keen to prevent a similar exodus of talent from Anfield, with Javier Mascherano coveting the overtures of European champion Barça (which reportedly has put in a $40 million bid), and Xabi Alonso and Álvaro Arbeloa on Real Madrid's radar. After signing of England right back Glen Johnson from Portsmouth for an eyebrow-raising $28 million, Arbeloa looks most likely to be on his way out. Now, Benítez is in transfer limbo with money available to spend on only one more player. The Spaniard could have more squad-rebuilding on his hands than he would have wanted.

At Chelsea, new boss Carlo Ancelotti's first bit of wheeling and dealing is to offload former first-choice defender Ricardo Carvalho and playmaker Deco, who looked like a revelation at the start of the season but faded away dramatically in what was an eventually disappointing campaign. Both players' old boss during their years at FC Porto, José Mourinho, wants to bring the pair to Inter Milan. But the clubs are a ways apart on their respective valuations of the players.

Elsewhere, Ancelotti's attempts to raid his old club for players seem destined for failure in the case of Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato after Milan rejected a "monster offer" from an unnamed club (believed to be Chelsea), but more positive for World Cup winner Andrea Pirlo, with Milan vice president AdrianoGalliani indicating a readiness to sell if the price is right. The possible departure of Didier Drogba leaves Ancelotti potentially in the hunt for a new striker. Now that a pursuit for Villa looks unlikely to bear fruit, Chelsea might increase its interest in Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor by testing the resolve of Arsène Wenger, who is in desperate need of additional transfer funds.

Wenger has hinted at a willingness to sell Adebayor, but not to another EPL club. A big-money offer from Chelsea could change that position. Arsenal, which finished in fourth place this past season, spent the entire previous offseason lamenting the departures of first-teamers Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini. Wenger was hoping this summer would allow him to enhance his squad. Murmurings of unhappiness over the lack of recent success from club captain Cesc Fàbregas and the stalling of contract talks with Robin van Persie haven't given Wenger the relaxing offseason holiday he wanted. The news that sometime defensive liability Emmanuel Eboué could be after a move away from the Emirates certainly will afford Wenger a relaxing cocktail by the pool.

Cash-rich Manchester City is hoping it's that much closer to breaking up the "Big Four" party. Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak may have set manager Mark Hughes a target of finishing in the top six next season, but with the quality of signings arriving, fourth place is realistic.

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City already has splashed $50 million on Roque Santa Cruz and Gareth Barry, while some $25 million will soon be dangled in front of Everton's nose for Barry's England compatriot Joleon Lescott. While Everton is keen to retain the left-sided defender, City may secure the deal through offering Jô as a makeweight. The Brazilian striker, unhappy and unsuccessful at City, spent the second half of last season on loan with the Toffeemen.

City is also making an audacious $50 million play for Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o. Barça is thought to be leaning towards selling Eto'o to raise funds for Villa, but Manchester United and Inter Milan are also waiting in the wings holding a possible trump card: Champions League soccer next season.

Eto'o would be a major coup for City, but his arrival won't please fans as much as it would Tévez. City is expected to win the race for the Argentine as soon as July 1, when his Manchester United contract expires. A world-class striker turning down a hefty new contract at Old Trafford to sign for United's smaller crosstown rivals is a key marker of City's growing status and influence -- one that won't go unnoticed in the pubs of Manchester. Expect many men in blue swaggering like Liam Gallagher.

Tévez felt undervalued by United, and that its offer, though substantial, came too late and was only made when it became clear he was intent on leaving. Tévez's representative, Kia Joorabchian, recently stated that El Apache's love for Man. United's fans precludes him for signing for key rival Liverpool. This may seem an odd standpoint for someone openly thinking of signing for City, but such is the way of things in Northwest England. Nonetheless, Tévez can expect a very frosty reception should he appear in a City shirt at Old Trafford come September.

One man who loves Liverpool is Michael Owen. During his time at the club, the England international was in his prime. A speedy goal-getter with a direct approach, Owen had the world at his feet. As Liverpool's top scorer from 1997-98 to 2003-04, Owen shone for club and country alike. His wonder-goal in the '98 World Cup was one of the highlights of the tournament, one that Argentine defenders Roberto Ayala and José Chamot probably still have nightmares about. In '02, Owen went on to become the youngest player ever to wear the England captain's armband, and has to date racked up 89 international appearances and 40 goals.

His Newcastle contract expires on June 30 and Owen then will leave the recently relegated side. At age 29, Owen now looks to be on the verge of another plum move in his illustrious career -- to Hull. Or Stoke. Yes, really. You couldn't make it up. How much would the man who left his beloved Liverpool for the status of being a Galáctico at Real Madrid loathe such an outcome?

Injury-ravaged and reportedly troubled by a gambling addiction, none of the major EPL sides so far have shown interest in Owen. Cast into inner turmoil, the humanitarian side of Team Limey hopes that he's snapped up by a Europa League-chasing side for which he shines. Then again, the heartless, banter-loving side of Team Limey would love to see him fighting relegation at Stoke or Hull.

Fans in the U.K. won't be watching Owen on Setanta next season. Following the Irish broadcaster's filing for bankruptcy this past week, its domestic EPL rights have been bought by ESPN. The American network has the money to produce excellent coverage, and should use its 46 matches for the forthcoming season, and 23 a year for the following three seasons to establish itself with the British public, prior to the next EPL television-rights contract competition.

How it differentiates its product from Sky's will be interesting. Team Limey would like to see ESPN focus on producing soccer for the older, thinking man with some real characters fronting it up -- something fun that inspires conversation and controversy. However, we fear the reality may be a little too slick and insipid, with too much attention paid to the desires of corporate sponsors. Save us from yet more good-looking, clean-cut 30-year-old yes-men, Worldwide Leader -- Team Limey wants on-air eccentrics.

Let us know who you think your team should be shipping in, and who it should be shipping out, along with any other EPL-related banter to the usual address: