Chelsea's pursuit may push up Saha's price

Fulham may agree deal with Old Trafford if striker can stay until end of season as champions' supporters are criticised as cheapskates

Fulham are attempting to sell Louis Saha in a deal which allows them to keep the unsettled striker until the end of the season. The west London club would accept a fee substantially below their own, unrealistic, price of £18m, which they maintain is Saha's "market value", if the buyer agrees that he can stay with them until May. Fulham, who admit that Saha's departure is now inevitable, either now or in the summer, negotiated similar terms last season over the sale of the defender Steve Finnan to Liverpool.

Sources at the club also confirmed yesterday - to their delight - that Chelsea had joined Manchester United in bidding for Saha, who has scored 13 Premiership goals this term. The competition is likely to push the transfer fee up towards £12m, which many observers regard as an inflated price for the Frenchman who has struggled in the top division until this season. Fulham would want Saha's buyer to allow the player to stay with them until the end of the season as they try to qualify for European competition.

Fulham insisted yesterday that they had not received an improved offer of £9.8m from United, and dismissed reports that a sale had been agreed and the 25-year-old was travelling to Manchester for a medical.

United also denied that a deal had been done, even though Saha was quoted as saying he was "very happy" that the transfer had gone through. Fulham believe the quotes came from Saha's agent, Branko Stoic, who has pushed for the deal, and not the player.

"The offer we have at present is for £8m [over a week ago], which is not acceptable," one Fulham source said. "We are not in discussions with United and our position remains the same. The fact is we do not need to sell."

Sir Alex Ferguson has made clear that Saha is his number-one transfer target and the player wants to leave, especially as United are pushing for honours on three fronts with limited attacking resources and with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suffering a further injury setback.

United may believe that Chelsea's interest is designed to drive up Saha's price and are still confident that he will join them. The Fulham manager, Chris Coleman, has also made plain his opposition to the sale of Saha, who signed for £2.1m from Metz in 2000 and has more than two years left on his contract, saying it would happen "over my dead body". But he knows that the club cannot resist if United, or Chelsea, raise their offer substantially.

However, Coleman will not be moving for Celtic's John Hartson becausethe Welshman would not pass Fulham's stringent medical tests. Nor does Hartson fit into Coleman's preferred style of play with one lone striker.

Although Fulham have successfully secured several players - such as Steed Malbranque and Luis Boa Morte - on extended contracts, they will wait until the summer before offering Coleman an improved deal. At present he is on a one-year rolling contract on a salary which is much lower than that of his predecessor, Jean Tigana. It is a risky tactic by Fulham as Coleman, though inexperienced, has become one of the most talked-about managers in the Premiership. However, the club does not want to repeat the situation with Tigana when it was forced to pay out huge sums in compensation.

United will not enter into any swap deals for the transfer-listed Nicky Butt. The 28-year-old England midfielder, who has been frustrated by his lack of first-team chances, had his request for a move granted by Ferguson this week.

It has been suggested that Butt could head to Middlesbrough in a deal which would see Gareth Southgate moving in the other direction. But Old Trafford officials said that they will not countenance such a deal. Newcastle, Everton, Birmingham and Tottenham are also believed to be interested but it is thought that Butt would prefer to stay in the north of England.

The Valladolid coach, Fernando Vazquez, denied yesterday that United had asked him to become Ferguson's assistant. Vazquez said he was "surprised" to hear he had rejected an offer since he had not spoken to Manchester United.

The Chelsea manager, Claudio Ranieri, yesterday said that Joe Cole is not for sale after the England midfielder had been linked to a swap deal involving Charlton's Scott Parker. The club also refused to comment on reports that they had made a bid for Paris St-Germain's Argentinian defender Gabriel Heinze.

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