Chelsea keep options open over Essien after denying Lyon claim

Chelsea sources last night denied claims by Lyon that the Premiership champions had bid £14m for Michael Essien - but indicated that an offer may be made for the highly rated midfielder next week.

Lyon's president, Jean-Michael Aulas, yesterday declared that he had rejected a bid from Chelsea but it appears that the only contact between the clubs has come from agents.

Aulas said that only one player - the striker Sidney Govou, who is available for £7m - would leave. "Chelsea came up with an offer and left with nothing," he said of Essien.

It is understood that Essien, a 22-year-old Ghanaian international, who has also interested Arsenal and Manchester United, is in no hurry to leave and may wait until after the African Nations Cup next summer even though he would still have two years left on his present contract. Essien's agent, Fabien Piveteau, said he had a "gentleman's agreement" that he can leave next year if he wishes.

Lyon's coach, Paul Le Guen, walked out on Monday, after retaining the French title, prompting fears of a player exodus. Le Guen has made it clear that he wants to manage in the Premiership.

Chelsea may regard Essien as low on their priorities, but they have moved closer to securing the left-back Asier Del Horno from Athletic Bilbao. A £12m deal has been agreed in principle with the 24-year-old Spain international set to sign a four-year contract worth around £60,000-a-week.

Del Horno's arrival would kill any lingering speculation that Chelsea remain interested in Arsenal's Ashley Cole. The Premier League inquiry into the "tapping-up" scandal involving Cole starts on Tuesday with Chelsea claiming they always had another target in mind although they have also been tracking the Borussia Dortmund defender Dede. However, work permit problems prevent a move for the Brazilian.

Also unlikely to move to Stamford Bridge is the Parma striker Alberto Gilardino. His agent, Marcello Bonetto, said yesterday that the Italian striker, who scored 45 goals in the past two Serie A seasons, favoured a move to Milan though Real Madrid are also thought to be interested.

The situation is complicated because Parma are in administration and because a £36m price tag has been slapped on any possible transfer for the 22-year-old by the club's chief executive officer, Luca Baraldi, who is keen to drum up funds.

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