x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Players keeping one eye on World Cup spots

Potential transfers must weigh the risks of moving with need for first-team action

Diego Costa could risk missing out on a spot in Spain's World Cup squad next year if he moved from Atletico Madrid this month. Dani Pozo / AFP
Diego Costa could risk missing out on a spot in Spain's World Cup squad next year if he moved from Atletico Madrid this month. Dani Pozo / AFP

There is a certain class of striker who has a premium on his value at the beginning of a calendar year, through the month of the open-transfer window. He tends to be a poacher type, naturally has a good ratio of goals per game, and a record of adapting readily and rapidly to a new club environment.

Few students of the transfer market will be surprised to see Jermaine Defoe, one of that class, strongly linked with an exit from Tottenham Hotspur before the end of January.

Defoe has made the majority of his transfers as a senior professional in mid-season.

Not quite as frequently as, say, Robbie Keane, the much-travelled Ireland international. Or Nicolas Anelka, the itinerant Frenchman who, when he is not attracting attention for controversial celebrations, has been for the last dozen years a regular stop-gap signing for clubs seeking to boost their attacking efficiency at mid-season.

Defoe has an extra motivation for restlessness. The World Cup finals are five months away. He remains a respected England squad player, experienced with an undoubted nose for goal.

Hot-shot English strikers are not so plentiful that the country’s manager, Roy Hodgson, can breezily overlook a player like Defoe. But he needs him match-ready and primed.

A marginal role as third-choice striker at Spurs makes him less than that. Yet a move to Toronto, the club most aggressively pursuing him in Major League Soccer, would also be viewed with scepticism within England, from where MLS standards are deemed far lower than those of the better European leagues.

A number of big-budget clubs are seeking centre-forwards.

Chelsea admire Diego Costa, who has 19 goals for Atletico Madrid this season. Access to the Brazil-born striker, though, is complicated. He has a release clause set at €38 million (Dh192.8m), and even if it were triggered, the player would need to want the move now, not in the summer.

Atletico sit at joint-top of the Spanish Primera Liga, they are in the Uefa Champions League, and Costa would be cup-tied in Europe if he signed for another club involved in the same competition.

A World Cup motive is at play, too, for Costa, who has committed himself to representing Spain, where he qualifies for citizenship.

Spain want him. But they want the Diego Costa showing his feisty, prolific best each week. He might immediately do that in a new club in a different league, but he would most likely need a period of adaptation.

Chelsea sit two points behind the Premier League leaders, Arsenal. They are in the last 16 of the Champions League, but manager Jose Mourinho worries about the balance of a squad who have shown repeated carelessness in defence and some bluntness up front.

An interest in Inter Milan’s dynamic Colombian midfielder Fredy Guarin is genuine, while the exit door at Stamford Bridge is also ajar. Mourinho’s lack of faith in Juan Mata, Chelsea’s Player of the Season in 2012/13, makes the Spaniard concerned about his status for his country ahead of a World Cup where positions in attacking midfield will be keenly contested in the Spain set-up.

The potential market for Mata would be wide. Inter like him, and they have a new majority shareholder, Erick Thohir, overseeing his first transfer window.

A clutch of younger Spaniards are potentially available on loan. English clubs, particularly, regard players brought through Spain’s development systems as mature and adaptable.

Liverpool are chasing a six-month deal for Barcelona winger Cristian Tello, 22, while his teammate and contemporary, Isaac Cuenca, also a winger, would be allowed to leave the Spanish champions on loan.

Similarly, Real Madrid would be in favour of young striker Alvaro Morata – admired by Arsenal – gaining first-team experience abroad if coach Carlo Ancelotti can be persuaded he does not need the 21 year old as cover between now and the end of May.

AC Milan, in a desperately low position in the Serie A table, will formalise two deals in the next 48 hours.

They bring in Adil Rami, the France defender whose World Cup hopes took a nosedive when the club he is departing, Valencia, exiled him from the first-team squad after he publicly criticised colleagues.

Keisuke Honda, the Japan playmaker, also joins Milan on a free transfer from CSKA Moscow, where his contract expired last month.

Honda looks a coup, although, as with Mario Balotelli last season – Milan signed Balotelli last January from Manchester City – he is ineligible for European games, having played for CSKA in the Champions League already in 2013/14.