City preparing £17m move for Mascherano as Liverpool stall

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The Independent Football

Manchester City are attempting to take advantage of the continuing uncertainty at Liverpool by lining up a surprise £17m bid for Javier Mascherano. City are expected to be the Premier League's big spenders in what could be an otherwise quiet January with owner Thaksin Shinawatra having already pledging substantial funds as the club pushes for European football. They want to recruit one leading striker, and possibly two, as well as a holding midfielder while discussions have been held about a new goalkeeper.

The favourite for the striking role remains Afonso Alves, the free-scoring Brazilian who plays for the Dutch club Heerenveen, with Peter Crouch and Nicolas Anelka having also been discussed by Shinawatra, his advisers and manager Sven Goran Eriksson. Much of City's transfer strategy is being led by the agent Pini Zahavi and he is believed to be keen to push through a deal involving Mascherano. It is thought that a meeting with City may have already taken place.

A new name on City's list is the Newcastle United striker Obafemi Martins who is understood to be unhappy at St James' Park and has a £13m release clause, although negotiations have taken place to remove that from his contract.

The future of Mascherano has been one of the points of conflict between Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez and the club's owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Benitez has urged the Americans to quickly provide the funds to sign the 23-year-old Argentine, who is only effectively on an 18-month loan, on a permanent transfer.

Mascherano, whose personal terms do not provide a stumbling block, and his advisers want to tie up a deal as quickly as possible with Liverpool also risking the midfielder signing a pre-contract agreement elsewhere if they do not offer him permanent terms by next month. It's thought that he would prefer to stay at Liverpool.

Mascherano is already one of the players at Anfield most valued by Benitez, and has a clause in his contract setting a fee of 17m if he leaves the club which would cause further strain with the owners. Benitez is believed to have already made clear he would rather sell John Arne Riise, who has only 18 months left on his contract, or Momo Sissoko who attracted interest from Italy last summer.

Mascherano is also believed to be wanted in Italy although he is thought to be more likely to move to Spain, and Barcelona, should he leave this country. Liverpool would not receive a fee for Mascherano who is, it is believed, still effectively owned by the sports media company MSI.

If City fail in a bid for Mascherano they are likely to turn their attention to Marcelo Mattos who, at around 3m, would provide a cut-price alternative. The 23-year-old Brazilian is also a holding midfielder and only joined the Greek club Panathinaikos earlier this year, from Corinthians. Mattos has been in impressive form and Portsmouth are also believed to be interested. Although not an international Mattos would be able to move to England because he has an Italian passport. Despite the impressive form of Dietmar Hamann, he is 34 and City have identified a new holding midfielder as a priority.

City spent heavily last summer, with almost 40m worth of players arriving in a whirlwind spree following Shinawatra's takeover and the appointment of Eriksson. The Swede is believed to have petitioned the owner last month urging him to spend more cash and claiming that beyond his first XI he lacks the strength and depth to sustain a challenge this campaign.

City's impressive performances have helped his cause as have the resounding success of a number of his signings, particularly Elano and Martin Petrov.

City are also expected to receive further good news soon with the likelihood that Micah Richards will finally sign a new contract before the end of this month. The 19-year-old has stalled partly because he is in the process of changing his advisers but has assured City that he has no intention of not signing. A host of leading clubs are monitoring the situation and it is likely that, despite the new contract, City will face a battle to hold on to him next summer.