Saha worth his weight in goals to Fulham - and United

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The Independent Football

They clapped him a little longer than usual after the Boxing Day victory, and he, in turn, made extra sure he acknowledged all four corners of Loftus Road. So was Louis Saha saying goodbye to the Fulham faithful?

The manager insists his prize striker is going nowhere, but one senses that the Frenchman's two goals against Southampton could well be his last for the Cottagers at their temporary home.

What is more, today's League trip to Villa Park could be Saha's last chance ever to find the net in a Fulham shirt. Manchester United, who made a gentle enquiry about his availability last week, are poised to place an official bid when the transfer window reopens in three days' time. If the reigning champions have their way, Saha could be one of their own by the end of the week.

Saha admits that he would welcome the opportunity of playing for "one of the biggest clubs in the world", but insists that he will not force a gun to his current employers' head. "I would be lying if I didn't say I am tempted by a club like Manchester United," Saha says, "but, equally, I am not going to hold Fulham to ransom over this. If they agree to sell me, then I will obviously talk to Manchester United; if they don't, then I will be very happy to stay here. I like Fulham."

Fulham, for their part, do not just like Saha. They need him. His 11 goals in 18 League matches make him the third most prolific scorer in the Premiership.

"He's fulfilling his potential this season," the Fulham manager, Chris Coleman, acknowledges, "and, right now, he is playing the best football of his life. But he is not for sale, especially halfway through a season like this one. It's end of story."

Coleman, who despite his lack of managerial experience has masterminded the club's excellent start to the campaign, adds: "I've spoken to Louis and he's very flattered, but he understands the situation and is happy to play for Fulham. One day the big move may happen, but not in January."

Recent history suggests otherwise, however. Man-chester United tried to buy Paolo Di Canio this time last year, but were put off by West Ham's asking price. The Italian's one chance of moving to Old Trafford had gone.

Despite his strong protests, even Coleman knows that every player has a price, and the feeling is that any bid over £8m would be just too tempting for a club with more than £35m of debts.

Much ultimately depends on the board's ambitions. Do they hold on to Saha to try to maintain their improbable push for a Champions' League berth, or accept that they are likely to finish in mid-table anyway and cash in while their player's value is at its highest?

Coleman is in no doubt what the money men should do. "Everybody expected us to lose loads of players in the summer, but we didn't," he says. "And everybody expected us to have a real bad start and struggle in the League, but we haven't. The fact is that it's Christmas time and we're fourth, so we've proven a lot of people wrong. Louis is an important part of our success, but he'd be the first to tell you it's been a team effort."

Perhaps so, but considering that Saha is the lone striker in a team who operate in a 4-5-1 formation whether at home or away, one wonders just how many goals he would score were he leading the attack of a more cavalier side.

Sir Alex Ferguson clearly sees Saha as the perfect partner for his main striker, Ruud van Nistelrooy. The Frenchman's other great selling point is the fact that he is free to play in the Champions' League, a competition which Sir Alex has targeted as his first priority this season.

In order to continue their parallel pushes for domestic and European honours, United require another top striker. Diego Forlan has failed to establish himself in the Premiership and could be used as a bargaining chip to lure Middlesbrough's Gareth Southgate, who is needed as cover for Rio Ferdinand. David Bellion is still learning and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will miss the rest of the season due to injury.

"I know I could be a success there," Saha insists. But will he be given the chance?