Manchester City believe Real Madrid may be engaging in a deliberate campaign to unsettle Sergio Aguero and, with the future beyond this summer already uncertain for three of their strikers, the club will refuse any notion of the Argentine leaving for the Bernabeu.
Aguero's father-in-law, Diego Maradona, is likely to have caused some nervousness at the Etihad Stadium with his suggestion on Spanish radio last month that "Kun [Aguero] has to play for Real Madrid. If he signed for them, it would be his big break. The best thing would have been to sign for Madrid. He made a mistake."
The striker insisted last month that "none of the stories about Real Madrid" had come from him and that he was happy at the Etihad. But City have an acute need to ensure that Maradona does not influence Aguero's departure because of uncertainty about the futures of Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli – whose intentions beyond the end of this season City privately accept they cannot predict – and Edin Dzeko, who has not come up to the mark City expected of his first full season in the Premier League.
Aguero has kept a home in the Spanish capital after his five years with Atletico Madrid and the suggestion for several months has been that Real's Argentine forward, Gonzalo Higuain, plus £8.5m would be offered to take Aguero back to the city. Spanish newspaper Marca, closely linked to Real, claimed that the club had "directly and indirectly" made their interest known to Aguero. City's manager Roberto Mancini, whose own future will be the subject of a review at the end of the season, has said that he will not sell his 21-goal top scorer or exchange him for Higuain.
Losing Aguero, who signed a five-year deal last July, worth £40m plus add-ons to Atletico, would be disastrous in a summer when City have more work to do than they had anticipated 12 months ago, when the manager's activity again outstripped boardroom expectations.
The Argentine, who has knuckled down to his work and scored 17 goals in 24 league starts, is one of the players City want to establish a side around as they attempt to introduce more pace and width. Their targets this summer are likely to be centred on the Lille midfielder Eden Hazard – who can inject energy – and a centre-back. The club also need to begin planning for a midfield successor to Gareth Barry. Rebuilding their entire frontline is currently the last thing on the City's mind.
City expect to face competition from Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur for Hazard, who has indicated he wants regular football – and may actually feel he has more chance of getting that at United than City. Tottenham have made the early running for the player, though uncertainties over manager Harry Redknapp's future and the north London club's willingness to pay a substantial fee make City contenders.
City's spending this summer will take place against the backdrop of Uefa's new financial fair play rules, though with a general feeling among the continent's elite clubs that many will fail to comply, it may be that demonstrating a trend towards break-even – if not actually achieving it – will be deemed acceptable
Publicly, the Real manager, Jose Mourinho, has rejected the idea of a Aguero/Higuain swap. Speaking at a press conference ahead of tonight's Champions League quarter-final second leg against Apoel Nicosia, he said: "Last week I had signed for [Manchester] City, [Iker] Casillas was going to Schalke, Higuain to Malaga..."
The club's director of institutional relations, Emilio Butragueno, also dismissed the suggestion of selling Higuain. "He arrived here very young and we regard him as a club player," he said.