Chelsea target Ben Haim to plug defence

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The Independent Online

Jose Mourinho may not have a single specialist centre-back available for this weekend's FA Cup tie against Macclesfield Town, but the Chelsea manager has identified Bolton Wanderers' Tal Ben Haim as the player to ease his defensive crisis. The Premiership champions are expected to put in a bid to Bolton for the player in the next week.

The 24-year-old Israeli international has been the subject of some transfer speculation over the last few months by refusing to renew his contract at Bolton, which runs out this summer. He could potentially be picked up on a Bosman free transfer in the summer but Chelsea do not have time to wait, with progress in four competitions at stake and a fresh injury to Khalid Boulahrouz against Aston Villa on Tuesday night adding to their problems.

It is thought that Mourinho had Manchester City's Micah Richards in mind when he launched a post-match rant at Villa Park about clubs who force Chelsea to pay inflated transfer fees because of the wealth of the club's owner, Roman Abramovich.

After Mourinho complained that he had been quoted the kind of prices that should buy the equivalent of "Diego Maradona in the 1980s", it seems that the manager's pursuit of the Manchester City teenager may be postponed.

Bolton are quoting a price of around £5m for Ben Haim, who will cost nothing in the summer and are aware that Portsmouth also have an interest in the player. The time is already ticking on Ben Haim's contract, and he is already permitted under Fifa guidelines to negotiate a summer transfer with clubs outside the Premiership, so hopes are dwindling that he will sign a new deal with Bolton.

As well as a central defender, Chelsea are seriously searching for a new striker as cover for Didier Drogba. There is now an acceptance at the club that in the event of an injury to the Ivorian there is simply no way that Andrei Shevchenko or Salomon Kalou can be relied on for goals, which means that this January transfer window will be potentially Abramovich's busiest yet.

Bolton's chairman, Phil Gartside, raised the bar this week when he suggested that the club would make Ben Haim an "offer he can't refuse" - namely tripling his salary to £30,000 a week. Chelsea would be prepared to make an offer the Israeli would find even harder to refuse, but only if they can complete the deal swiftly enough to be able to dedicate themselves to the even more delicate task of buying a striker.

While Bolton are more or less resigned to losing Ben Haim, they are frustrating Chelsea with their high valuation on a player they bought for £250,000 from Maccabi Tel Aviv in July 2004. However, Manchester City's £18m valuation of Richards, whom Chelsea would see playing as converted centre-back if they could sign him this month, makes the Israeli defender a much more realistic target.

"I want to go to the transfer market and I have already told the top people at my club that, in my opinion, it is time for other clubs to look at us as a normal club," Mourinho said. "At the moment we are just waiting and watching and trying to interpret the reaction of people [at selling clubs]. Already without any approach, all the reactions are in the air [sky-high].

"We are not crazy. If somebody wants a Chelsea player they have to make a real offer. There will be no players on loan and no players on sales [prices]. The players [Chelsea buy] must be at the correct price."

John Terry is set to return from a back operation for the next Premiership match against Wigan on 13 January, by which time Ricardo Carvalho will have served a suspension he picked up with a booking at Aston Villa. Boulahrouz is out for up to six weeks with knee ligament problems, but Ben Haim is being bought primarily because Mourinho has lost faith in the Dutchman.

The task of a new striker is even more difficult than signing a new central defender. The former West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur man Frédéric Kanouté, now at Seville and currently top of the Spanish goalscoring table, has been linked with Chelsea but he too would prove expensive, given that his club are credible challengers for the Spanish title.

Blues brother? The Ben Haim file

Born: 31 March 1982, Rishon Lezion, Israel.

1998-2004: Maccabi Tel Aviv (147 league games, 2 goals).

2004-present: Bolton (64, 1).

Israeli national team 1998-present (22, 0).

They say: "He oozes great self-confidence and relishes the responsibility of captaining the side." (Jewish Telegraph, after he captained Bolton in a Uefa Cup tie).

He says: "If you have the confidence of the public you can see how dreams come true."

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