Manchester City believe the deal to bring the 19-year-old Italian striker Mario Balotelli from Internazionale may be concluded within the next 48 hours and are ready to pay up to £30m to secure his services.
The stumbling block for a player so admired by Roberto Mancini is his personal wage demands of £3m a year. City are unwilling to lay out that kind of salary for a teenager and aware of the image it would create, though there is a firm belief that the obstacle to the player's move from San Siro, reuniting him with Mancini, can be overcome in the next few days. Negotiations are far enough advanced that the club's football administrator, Brian Marwood, does not consider his presence to be required when City take on Rafael Benitez's Inter in Baltimore on Saturday. Inter have said they are unwilling to sell for less than €35m (£29.2m) and this is one deal in which City are prepared for some flexibility on price.
Mancini has indicated how keen he is be reunited with Balotelli, whom he snapped up when he was Inter coach in 2006. "I was the first to believe in him and I'm convinced about what he can give. Mario has two qualities that suit us: his talent and his age, because I want people able to build a cycle [of continuity] at Manchester City," he told Italian daily newspaper La Stampa yesterday.
"That said, we return to the problem of valuation that has to be just. I like the player and at certain conditions. That's all. I think that in a couple of days certain situations will be clearer, but I can't guarantee in what way. There is the money to buy anyone but not to pay them a lot as some people are saying."
However, Mancini's interest in Aston Villa's James Milner does not stretch to such limits and with Villa demonstrating after talks between Martin O'Neill and the England international yesterday that they are not willing to cast off the midfielder, City are expected to table a second, £24m bid which will be their final offer. It will be for Villa to decide whether to accept that or to ask for any of the players surplus to requirements at Eastlands, such as Stephen Ireland or Nedum Onuoha.
Though there had been expectation in the Midlands that O'Neill would speak publicly yesterday, perhaps getting his own position in early in what has become a rancorous dispute with Milner in the last week, the club instead announced that talks between manager and player had been "amicable" and that Milner had been included in Villa's squad for the Guadiana Cup in Portugal this weekend.
The 24-year-old returned to pre-season training yesterday, having been given a month's holiday following England's early exit from the World Cup. He was unhappy last week after O'Neill had said he had "intimated" he wanted to leave Villa.
But Milner, who is aware that there are unlikely to be alternative bids if City's interest does not elicit a transfer, does not want to burn bridges. Having been prepared to put last week behind him, he has been included in his club's pre-season plans for the cup games with Feyenoord and Benfica on Saturday and Sunday respectively. Milner will not have to tread the same path as Barry in avoiding having to play against Walsall this evening.
His future seems to lie more in O'Neill's hands than in Mancini's. With City prepared to walk away from their prospective new midfielder, it is ultimately likely to be a case of how badly O'Neill feels he needs the money a Milner deal would bring, when the transfer window is about to slam shut. Without selling other players, he is unlikely to have much at his disposal – particularly if he fails to secure the sale of players such as Steve Sidwell and Luke Young, whose salaries may be prohibitive to other clubs. Since they feel they can live without Milner, City know that theirs is a negotiating position which may improve at the end of the transfer window.
Among the players City have been linked with are Liverpool's Fernando Torres, Wolfsburg's Edin Dzeko, Barcelona's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Diego Forlan, though Mancini now appears to have ruled out a bid for the Uruguay striker who won the Golden Ball award for the best player at the World Cup.
"Those that I am interested in are those that the newspapers are saying apart from Forlan," he said. "He's formidable and I was in love with him when he played at Villarreal four or five years ago. I would have taken him to Inter. Today instead I am looking for younger players."