Chelsea remain in the hunt to sign the Brazilian teenage sensation Neymar, amid claims from Santos yesterday that five European clubs have met his contract's €45m (£40m) buy-out clause.
Chelsea have spent two years scouting Neymar and last week the well-connected agent Pini Zahavi was flown to Brazil to try to close a deal that would makethe striker the most expensive teenager in football history.
Santos president Luis Alvaro Ribeiro yesterday made the audacious claim that five European clubs have agreed to pay the Brazilian champions the €45m buy-out figure and are now cleared to agree terms with the player.
"We don't want to sell Neymar, but obviously there is a contractual clause they can pay," Ribeiro said. "Five European clubs have offered to meet this clause. I can't say which ones because that's an agreement between Santos and the clubs, but they're the most important European ones. We've given them permission [to speak to him]."
Speculation that Manchester City are one of the five is believed to be wide of the mark but Chelsea last night would neither confirm nor deny the reports about them from Sao Paolo. But they did confirm their interest in the 19-year-old, who comes on the recommendation of Roman Abramovich's personal talent-spotter Piet de Visser. Chelsea face competition for his signature from Real Madrid, who believe the much-hyped striker has the potential to become as good as Barcelona's Lionel Messi.
Chelsea are also keen to open talks with Didier Drogba over a one-year contract extension. New manager Andre Villas-Boas is understood to want to retain Drogba, 33, despite the arrival of £50m striker Fernando Torres in January and the club's pursuit of other striking options. Villas-Boas is committed to attacking football, and is believed to have sanctioned a one-year extension to Drogba's current deal, worth £130,000 a week, which runs out in 2012.
Marseilles are interested in re-signing Drogba, who spent one season there before going to Chelsea in a £24m move in 2004. Marseilles' president, Vincent Labrune, believes the club could afford the transfer fee for Drogba but admits his salary demands may be testing.
"The question is whether in terms of salary, Marseilles have the means for four years to pay Didier Drogba," Labrune told La Provence newspaper. "I answer 'yes'. But we cannot afford 11 Didier Drogbas."
Chelsea are willing to listen to offers for both Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda, but Michael Essien's agent claims the 28-year-old midfielder is going nowhere, despite interest from Milan and Bayern Munich. Fabien Piveteau said yesterday: "There's absolutely no chance of Essien leaving Chelsea. It is not true that Villas-Boas wants to release Michael. Michael has a very good relationship with the supporters, the new manager and the club owner."