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Jun 13, 2013

Europe's in-demand stars

In the build-up to Jose Mourinho being presented to the media as Chelsea manager for the second time on Monday, several Spanish sources claimed he would use the stage not just to furnish the English media with some long-awaited pearls of wisdom, but also to announce the signing of Napoli's Edinson Cavani. It's that time of year, when the outlandish appears possible every day.

So we see Robert Lewandowski's point when he suggests Borussia Dortmund's statement that they won't sell him to Bayern Munich "is maybe not a final decision", and we keep listening when Cristiano Ronaldo is presented as a possible signing for Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco or even his former employers, Manchester United. Here are a few of Europe's finest who are likely to keep tongues wagging for a fair portion of the window.

Gonzalo Higuain
Age: 25
Club: Real Madrid
Interested parties: Arsenal, Juventus

Higuain has scored over 120 goals for Real Madrid in six-and-a-half seasons since arriving from River Plate as a teenager in December 2006. Derided as workmanlike on his arrival, he won the Madridistas' hearts with some determined displays and some crucial goals in the 2007 and 2008 La Liga title wins. Once suggested as a makeweight to help sign Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal, over 90% of Madrid fans polled by Marca said they'd prefer to keep El Pipita. Higuain is now as keen to go as his club are to sell him, with his father/agent Jorge claiming the club reneged on a promise to give him a pay bump.

A modest record in the Champions League (certainly compared with his clubmate Karim Benzema) makes El Real's reported asking price of €30m look a bit excessive, but Higuain's suitors will hope that the Spanish club's will to get on with their own transfer plans and free up cash for Cristiano Ronaldo's planned contract extension will facilitate a compromise next month. He would certainly add needed aggression to Arsenal's attack or lateral mobility to Juve's.

Ilkay Gundogan
Age: 22
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Interested parties: Arsenal, Real Madrid

If there was anybody unaware of just how skilled Gundogan has become at dictating the pace of matches, the Champions League final would have made it clear for them. Initially miscast as a replacement for Nuri Sahin when he arrived from Nuremburg in 2011, Gundogan looks built for English football, having an engine to compare with any box-to-box midfielder as well as the intelligence to prompt from in front of his own defence.

There are two major stumbling blocks to any move. Firstly, the fact that his club have little need to cash in having already sold Mario Gotze, and secondly, Gundogan's reluctance to lose his status at the hub of one of Europe's hottest young teams. His struggles to impose himself in his early days at Dortmund are fresh in the 22-year-old's mind, and he doesn't want a similar experience leading into the 2014 World Cup - hence his own admission that he is "very likely" to extend a deal that ends in 2015. His current contract talks are crucial to his immediate future.

Ezequiel Garay/Eliaquim Mangala
Age: 26/22
Club: Benfica/Porto
Interested parties: Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona

What would a transfer market summer be without a couple of big sales from the Portuguese Liga? Benfica have taken their lead from arch-rivals Porto in recent seasons, knocking out some of their stars (David Luiz, Ramires) to Premier League buyers at top whack. United have followed Garay closely in the last campaign and Chelsea have been increasingly linked to Mangala in the media in recent weeks.

Mangala is more en vogue, having ended the season very strongly and having the sort of adaptability - as an accomplished centre-back and left-back - to perk the interest of Barcelona, searching for an Eric Abidal replacement. Yet Garay represents the better value; he is consistent, despite the error that led to Fernando Torres' opener in the Europa League final, positionally aware, strong and technically adept. The Argentinian also has a relatively affordable buyout clause of €20m (£17m). Mangala's is a hefty €50m (£42.6m) and having already sold James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho this summer, Porto have little incentive to accept less.

Hulk
Age: 26
Club: Zenit St Petersburg
Interested parties: Chelsea, Tottenham

Having made his surprise move to Russia in September last year, Hulk has had plenty of hostility to contend with - not least from some of his own new team-mates, with Igor Denisov particularly vocal in his protests at the Brazilian's reported €6.5m annual wages. Given the initial tumult, Hulk did well to survive the season, but a respectable opening campaign failed to yield either a successful title defence for Zenit or the desired success in Europe.

He appears to have the perfect profile for a pair at the Premier League's top end. It is easy to see Hulk slotting into the sort of wide-forward-cum-inverted-winger role that Arjen Robben revelled in during Jose Mourinho's initial months at Stamford Bridge, while Tottenham are on the hunt for forwards and Andre Villas-Boas helped harness Hulk's dynamism perfectly at Porto. It remains to be seen whether either will offer the right figure, with Zenit unlikely to consider bids of less than €30m (£25.5m).

Kevin Strootman
Age: 23
Club: PSV Eindhoven
Interested parties: Manchester United

Having already made a strong reputation for himself across the continent, Kevin Strootman is doing his best to get his club PSV Eindhoven the best deal in the summer when they seem certain to finally sell him. With 18 appearances for the Netherlands senior team already under his belt, the PSV captain is impressing at the heart of a dynamic Under-21 side at the Euros in Israel.

Manchester United's long-term interest is understandable. Midfielder Strootman can make his presence felt at both ends, but is strongest moving play from one side of the field to the other with his fine passing, which would fit well with United's habitual keenness to attack using the pitch's full width. United, or any other buyer, is likely to have to go close to the €20m (£17m) mark to seal the deal.

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