Manchester City are back in the hunt for the £35m-rated Valencia striker David Villa, with manager Mark Hughes providing the first indication that he may not continue his quest to buy Blackburn's Roque Santa Cruz this summer.
City's preparations for a busy close season of business on the continent are gathering pace, with chief executive Garry Cook having sought to mend fences with Milan after the Kaka fiasco in January, as well as establishing contact with Barcelona and Real Madrid. In part, Cook is seeking a greater degree of independence from the agents who have become such significant figures at City since the days of former owner Thaksin Shinawatra.
Though there have already been some frustration – the Real defender Fabio Cannavaro has turned City down – Valencia have indicated that they are prepared to sell one of Villa or attacking midfielder David Silva. Cook was quoted £128m for the pair in December and ended discussions, but Valencia's parlous financial position will force them to come up with a more realistic valuation this time. A figure of £35m seems possible – a considerable reduction on what City were asked for in the winter.
An over-reliance on Craig Bellamy has already illustrated that another striker is Hughes' prime target. Barcelona's Thierry Henry is another in whom Cook has taken an active interest. But Villa, 27, fits the clean-cut image which seems to be among City's considerations in their pursuit of marquee names and also has the maturity which – Bellamy aside – the club's current collection of strikers lacks. City's biggest challenge would be persuading the player, a home-loving Spaniard who seems more disposed to joining Barcelona or Real, to sign. Silva, 23, an attacking midfielder capable of playing on either side of the pitch, may be a more promising prospect.
Hughes' intent where Santa Cruz is concerned remains unclear. His knee injury has limited his contribution at Blackburn Rovers this season to 20 Premier League games. But the get-out clause which compels Rovers to part with him this summer if a bid of £18m or more is made means price may no longer be an issue. Asked about Santa Cruz's fitness problems yesterday, Hughes said: "You have to have due diligence on players. If you don't mistakes will be made. We are looking at a number of players and we will look at the player who best fits our needs. Our targets may well change."
There are no such doubts about Villa, though City's attempt to bring him to Eastlands would represent another large test of their ability to become a major force. On a personal level, Rafael Benitez would appear to have a comfortable head start in attracting Villa from his old club. But the Liverpool manager has already admitted he must sell in order to buy this summer and has walked away from a £35m asking price for Silva. Also in the chase would be Chelsea and, according to sources in Italy, Internazionale.
In what was being interpreted by some in Spain as him smoothing the way for a sale, the Valencia vice-president, Fernando Gomez Colomer, said yesterday: "The fans know that we will do all we can to keep them [Villa and Silva] here, but we cannot rule anything out because of our financial situation. We have to put the future of Valencia first."
The pursuit of Kaka suggested that City were a long way from working out how to attract such big names. Cook's plans went awry when he decided to dispense with agents for his final, unsuccessful day of talks. Hughes was asked yesterday whether a lack of appreciation of City's aims – which Cook is now trying to convey – had contributed to their failure in January. "Possibly," he said. "It certainly doesn't do any harm to be in the same room as these people who are connected with the top clubs in Europe. It's about building relationships with the top clubs."
There was scope to work with Milan again, Hughes said, despite Cook's claim that the Italian club had "bottled" the Kaka deal. "I don't think it was ever said that the relationship is broken," Hughes said. "I'm sure there would be work. We are able to open doors because we have owners who are perceived to have a lot of resources. If we're honest, these are the reasons the doors are opening."
Striking gold: City's potential big-money buys
David Villa The January price of £128m for him and David Silva was typical of the inflationary "Manchester City effect" as the club have described it. Things may be different now as Valencia struggle to raise cash amid their move to the Nou Mestalla.
Thierry Henry Would probably command a price of around £14m – £2m less than Barcelona paid Arsenal for him. City were certainly not left with the impression that their pursuit of the striker was a lost cause earlier this year.
Roque Santa Cruz In the midst of a relegation fight Sam Allardyce indicated he would only accept a bid of perhaps £30m for Santa Cruz. Rovers look to have survived and he no longer seems indispensable, but City may have other targets.