Nicolas Anelka is the man at the top of Chelsea's list next month as they attempt to sign a striker to cover in Didier Drogba's absence. The notoriously restless Frenchman is understood to be interested in a move to Stamford Bridge but he wants assurances that he will not be discarded when Drogba returns from the African Nations Cup in February.
Anelka, 28, is understood to have told the Bolton manager, Gary Megson, before the game against Liverpool on 2 December that he wanted to leave the club which he joined last year for a record 8m transfer fee. His key anxiety about Chelsea, who play Liverpool tonight in the Carling Cup quarter-finals, is that he will be left out of the team when Drogba returns which will in turn affect his chances of being picked for Raymond Domenech's France squad for the Euro 2008 finals.
Avram Grant has identified Anelka as the most suitable, and realistic, target for the next month, but Chelsea have resolved not to be forced to bid more than the 8m which Bolton paid for him. Given that Anelka unexpectedly signed a new contract in August until 2011 after being pursued by West Ham, it is Bolton who hold the stronger position. Regarded as a problem player since he left Arsenal in 1999, Anelka has, nevertheless, delivered goals in his subsequent Premier League stints at Liverpool, Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers.
Grant has been drawing up a list of potential new strikers and taking advice on them ever since he took over the job in September. Although he has now been forced to play Andrei Shevchenko, the Ukrainian had only four starts under the new Chelsea manager until Drogba was forced to undergo knee surgery on 8 December. Claudio Pizarro is even further down the pecking order and Anelka has the benefit of not being Champions League cup-tied.
Dealing with the Anelka brothers, Didier and Claude, has been regarded as stressful by some of the seven clubs for which he has played. Increasingly, however, Anelka relies instead on a best friend called Doug attempts to find a surname have proved fruitless for advice and representation. The Frenchman is said to be so focused on this summer's Euro 2008 tournament that even if the clubs were able to agree terms he would still hold out for a commitment that he will play a full role in the season.
Almost eight months since he was injured by a Titus Bramble tackle at St James' Park, Michael Ballack will make a return to the Chelsea team tonight against Liverpool. The German international is yet to play under Grant and endured a fraught relationship with Jose Mourinho over the player's decision to travel independently to Germany to have an operation on his left ankle.
Ballack, 31, has since undergone another operation but after eight months of rehabilitation he has been able to run for some time but not take a tackle he finally came through two reserve games, one behind closed doors, last week. Grant said yesterday: "Ballack is available. He's a good player and we miss him. He'll be in the squad."
Ballack's late return vindicates the decision made by Mourinho, on medical advice, not to name him in the Champions League squad which upset the German football federation. The Germany captain's return is in good time for the loss of John Obi Mikel, who joins Nigeria for the African Nations Cup in Ghana next month.
Grant also called upon the Premier League to prevent bad tackles rather than punish Chelsea for their players surrounding the referee. John Terry will miss six weeks with three broken bones in his right foot after Emmanuel Ebou's tackle on Sunday. "On Sunday look which players ran more up to the referee? Ours or theirs?" Grant said. "It's part of the game. I don't think it's that important.
"The major problem in terms of discussion in the last few months has been that. That's the wrong message. The right message would be how we can better protect the players. There were bad fouls, that foul on John Terry. That's the most important thing."
Ashley Cole will discover today if he has a Football Association charge to answer for a gesture he made to Arsenal fans on Sunday.
A Chilean club Audax Italiano claim that Chelsea are signing their 18-year-old Argentine striker Franco Matias Di Santo for 3.5m.