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Jul 8, 2013

Strikers, strikers everywhere

Here's a game you can play at home. Draw up a list of the world's top 20 strikers. Now count how many of them are either likely to move this summer or have already moved. Radamel Falcao, Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Robert Lewandowski, Alvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic - heck, even Wayne Rooney (though I doubt he's going anywhere). I can't remember any summer like this one. It's partly down to the economics of the game. There are a finite number of clubs capable of signing players at certain fees (and certain wage packets), and their ranks have been swelled by free-spending newcomers Monaco. At the same time, given the money tied up in certain players - and strikers definitely command a premium, though plenty of analytics types argue that this should not be the case - there are twin imperatives at work. On the one hand, you must not let your high-priced star let his contract run down. That means either selling earlier than you otherwise would or offering gigantic extensions, which further drive up costs. On the other hand, if you lose your top-tier center forward, you need to go out and get another one of comparable stature; you've got tickets to sell, sponsors to satisfy, media and fan pressure to assuage. That's why we're not only seeing an unprecedented number of strikers switching clubs, we're also witnessing a summer of musical chairs and interlocking deals, each one depending on another.


The biggest deal of the summer, assuming Cristiano Ronaldo stays put, will probably be Edinson Cavani. Last week, Paris Saint-Germain made an $82.5 million bid for the Napoli striker, which was actually around $1.5 million MORE than his release clause (but, hey, at that level, what's a million or so more or less). All that's left is for the big man to agree terms and, to persuade him, PSG are reportedly putting together a package worth $13 million a season over the next five years AFTER tax. That works out to $130 million, which could balloon to close to $250 million if the country adopts the 75 percent top tax rate on wages above €1 million a year. Napoli, of course, are happy to take the money (not that they have much choice). Cavani, apparently, is not convinced. He would prefer a move to Real Madrid or to the Premier League (Manchester City and Chelsea have been linked) even if it means making a few million less per season. Reportedly he's been getting some negative feedback from his old team-mate Ezequiel Lavezzi, who moved to PSG last summer. - 'Cavani would send a message' - PSG close in on Cavani, deal imminent Ligue 1 may be growing - slowly - but it's still a long, hard, physical slog, without the glamour Cavani might find elsewhere. A year ago, he would have joined a club with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm and Leonardo upstairs. Now he's looking at Laurent Blanc and a big question mark in the director of football position: Leonardo is banned until June 2014. Beyond that, there's the Zlatan Ibrahimovic factor. The big Swede carried PSG last season, scoring 30 of their 69 league goals. And he happens to play the same position as Cavani. To be 100 percent fair, Ibrahimovic has played alongside a target man before and done OK: He spent two years at Juventus lining up next to David Trezeguet. And it's true that Cavani is more mobile and offers far more in terms of workrate than the Frenchman. But why would you even attempt something like this if you don't have to? Why spend all that money on a star center forward and then force him to play out of position, cutting in from the wing or otherwise disassembling his game so he can coexist with Zlatan? And sure, it's theoretically possible that Ibrahimovic could be moved. But right now, it's only marginally more likely than Lionel Messi winning the NBA slam dunk contest. Ibrahimovic turns 32 years old in October and earns a monstrous $35 million a season. He's used to being the man, likes to have things his way and isn't really into that whole pay-cut thing. If you're PSG, you probably couldn't give him away right now, and given the way things panned out last year, odds are you wouldn't want to. And that's without getting into Zlatan's ego and personality, which often require either a seasoned diplomat or a Ph.D. in psychology to handle. Cavani has a huge decision to make in the next 48 hours. Don't take it as a foregone conclusion that he simply goes for the money. Thus far, he has said and done the right thing at every turn (perhaps because he took the warning from Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis about stepping out of line seriously). This could be the point where he makes his voice heard.


In one of those bizarre cosmic convergences that the game sometimes throws up at us, Luis Suarez was born exactly three weeks before Cavani in the same smallish Uruguayan town (Salto). And he too is on the market, having expressed multiple times that he wants to leave the Premier League. Suarez has said - repeatedly - that he loves Liverpool and Liverpool fans, but his relationship with the media and the English game has broken down beyond repair. Liverpool have put a $74.5 million price tag on his head. It's the kind of number which, obviously, is negotiable, but equally obviously, the $45 million bid Arsenal submitted over the weekend doesn't even come close. The Gunners knew this but, then again, it's the old maxim: "You don't ask, you don't get" and "All they can do is say no." Which Liverpool did. - Limbert: Tactical move for Suarez - Arsenal bid for Suarez rejected - reports But even if Arsenal - or another English club - increased their bid to something closer to the asking price it's hard to see Suarez accepting a move to another English team. Were he to do that, he would lose a hell of a lot of credibility, not just in the eyes of the public at large, but Liverpool fans as well. After all, Arsenal play in the Premier League and are covered by the exact same media who, supposedly, give Suarez such a hard time. So what were Arsenal thinking? Most likely it was a way to send a message to Real Madrid, the other club who have been strongly linked to Suarez. And it's a great example of the summer's interlocked and interlinked transfer market. The Gunners have been engaged in protracted negotiations with Real over Gonzalo Higuain. The deal with the player is pretty much done; Madrid are stalling on the fee. Why? Because they would rather not sell Higuain until they have a replacement lined up. Going into any negotiation for a new player desperate to bring someone in (and with a big wad of money in your account) is never a good idea. So while Real sit and ponder the likes of Cavani and Suarez, Arsenal need to wait on Higuain. At least, that's the plan at the Bernabeu.


Meanwhile, the gigantic game of chicken between Lewandowski, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund rumbles on. Jurgen Klopp told a German newspaper that it was a "known fact" that Lewandowski "is going to play for Bayern after the upcoming season." The operative words there are "after the upcoming season." Meaning Dortmund will hold the Polish forward to his contract and are willing to let him leave as a free agent rather than selling him this summer to Bayern for the reported $45 million on offer. Anything is possible, I guess, but doing so would be the equivalent of taking 45 million dollar bills and building a big bonfire at the Westfalen: not a very clever thing to do. - Schaaf: Lewandowski is made to wait The sense is that, come what may, Lewandowski won't be at Borussia next season. Either because the club swallowed their collective pride and sold him to Bayern or, possibly, because they found someone else to take him. Certainly Dortmund's moves this summer suggest a Lewandowski-less future. First, they signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for $17 million. Then they agreed a fee to pick up Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Shakhtar Donetsk for $32 million. It's almost too easy to identify those two as the replacements for Lewandowski and Mario Gotze, who made the switch to Bayern earlier this year. Aubameyang scored 19 league goals for Saint Etienne last year, and while it's true that at times he played off of Brandao last season rather than as a genuine center forward, his body type and skill set make him a natural replacement for Lewandowski, particularly in Klopp's system. Mkhitaryan is somewhat different from Gotze; he's more of a traditional passing attacking midfielder, less quick and creative perhaps, but equally solid technically and with more of a physical presence too. Still, he's an obvious fit for the way Dortmund play. Of course, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan cost as much combined as Dortmund made from the sale of Goetze, and the club will obviously have a lot of Champions League prize money coming in so it's possible they're willing to take a calculated risk on Lewandowski, hoping he'll have a change of heart and extend his deal. But the reality is that Klopp and director of football Michael Zorc know all too well that you won't get this kind of windfall every season. Which is why it will be extremely surprising if Lewandowski ends up sticking around without signing a new deal.


Rule No. 1 if you happen to be one of the very best athletes (or entertainers) in the world: Get advisers who know what they're doing. Lionel Messi has endured a double whammy this summer. First there was his tax case, which brought bad publicity and, when all is said and done, could see him cut cheques for a total of $18 million to the Spanish taxman. And now this fiasco with his "Messi and Friends" tour. In case you missed it, Messi decided to forgo part of his holiday and instead play four exhibition games - two in South America, two in the US - to raise money for the "Messi Foundation" (the umbrella organization that funds his various charity projects.) It seemed like a brilliant idea. Great PR, strengthen the Messi brand in North and South America, kick in some serious money to folks who need it. Except the whole thing has been a shambles from the start. Attendances haven't been great, one of his dates had to be cancelled with just a few days' notice and the final game, in Chicago, drew just 20,000 people and, most importantly, was deserted by a number of "Messi friends" who were billed by the promoters. Messi has blamed organizational problems and a dispute with the agency that put the whole thing together. He certainly didn't come out of looking good and frankly, that's unfair to him because whatever mess was made, he still showed up, donated his time and raised funds for charity. Yet at best this was a lost opportunity. And at worst, the sort of experience that might discourage other stars (including Messi) from doing something like this again. If that happens, it won't just be fans losing out, it will be the charities these players support as well.