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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Clubs roll the dice on deadline day

On Monday - against the backdrop of a national austerity drive of unprecedented scale - came the most expensive and enthralling transfer deadline day ever, as the owners of two of the Premier League's troubled giants laid their cards (and their cash) on the table.

Chelsea's reclusive and volatile owner Roman Abramovich, seemingly unable to tolerate further evidence that his own policy of belt-tightening is not conducive to keeping the Blues at the top of the domestic and European game, splashed out over £75m in less than 24 hours on the acquisitions of Fernando Torres and David Luiz.

At Torres' former club Liverpool, new owners New England Sports Ventures oversaw spending of just under £60m on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll in the same time period, as they look to placate an Anfield faithful reeling from the departure of one of their most revered stars and desperately seeking reassurance on the club's ambitions going forward.

The aggressive transfer strategies of Abramovich and NESV have the potential to transform their respective clubs' short-term and long-term fortunes. Having said that, there is more than a hint of a gamble in their common decision to pay massive fees for players who, at one level or another, have a lot left to prove.

For Abramovich and Chelsea, the signing of Torres in particular is an awesome statement of intent. 

It is also an emphatic way to pour scorn on the suggestions of some observers that the Russian billionaire had fallen out of love with the West London club, or that his heavy involvement in the planning for his homeland's first ever World Cup in 2018 would prove a potentially damaging distraction.

But the significance of Torres' capture is greater than this. Of course, the £50m price tag will inevitably invite comparisons to Abramovich's last major outlay - the misguided move for Andriy Shevchenko in the summer of 2006.

But there the similarities end.

In Torres, Chelsea have acquired a player who as recently as two years ago was regarded as the best out-and-out striker in world football.

His goals were integral as Liverpool challenged Manchester United for the Premier League title in 2008, and he also netted the winner in the final of Euro 2008 as Spain won their first international honour for over 40 years.

Admittedly, Shevchenko boasted a similarly illustrious CV when he moved to England. But the Ukrainian was 30 years old, having just suffered a serious knee injury which, in hindsight, meant he was already finished as a top-level performer.

A combination of injuries, underachievement and disillusionment with life in Liverpool has undoubtedly curtailed Torres' progress in the last 18 months.

But at only 26, it is a reasonable bet that the Spaniard's best years remain in front of him. If this turns out to be true, then £50m could actually end up being good value.

The biggest risk in Abramovich's rationale lies in the fact that he has smashed the British transfer record based on the player that Fernando Torres can be, and not the player he is right now.

But Chelsea's move for Torres does not represent the biggest gamble of deadline day, even if it was the most expensive one. In fact, it wasn't even Abramovich's biggest gamble.

The signing of Fernando Torres may be considered by many a 'luxury' for Chelsea, but the addition of David Luiz for £21m from Benfica was borne out of pure necessity. 

Defensive injuries played an instrumental role in the Blues' decline over the last two months, and with Alex still on the sidelines following knee surgery, Branislav Ivanovic perversely looking more comfortable at right-back, and Jeffrey Bruma not yet ready to make the step up, fresh blood was urgently needed.

But is the 24-year-old Brazilian the right man for the job? At £21m, he would be an expensive mistake. 

It must be stated that consistently solid displays for Benfica have earned Luiz a reputation as one of the best young defenders on the continent.

But the risk remains that the urgency of Chelsea's need for defensive cover clouded their judgment and resulted in them paying over the odds for a player who is, as yet, unproven in a major European league, and who will at the very least take time to adjust to a very different footballing environment.

Time will inevitably be the judge of whether or not Abramovich's deadline day gambles pay off. What is certain, however, is that those in West London will not be the only ones hoping that fortune favours the brave.

Some 176 miles north of the capital, John W. Henry and his associates at New England Sports Ventures took perhaps their boldest move yet as owners of Liverpool FC, bankrolling a last-minute transfer spree of their own as they look to re-establish the country's most successful football club among the footballing elite.

Having spent close to £60m on bringing in Luis Suarez from Ajax and Andy Carroll from Newcastle United, NESV's expenditure may lack some of the scale of that undertaken by Chelsea's wealthy patron, but an examination of the players acquired reveals the Americans' investment lacks nothing in terms of sheer audacity.

Suarez is a signing which carries promise and excitement, even if the former Ajax star was a little overpriced at £23m. He boasts a phenomenal scoring record of 111 goals in 159 appearances for the Dutch giants, as well as an impressive World Cup which deserves to be remembered for more than that handball

Moreover, he is young, tactically versatile and hungry - in short, exactly the sort of player Liverpool should be looking to sign as they aim to recapture past glories.

Of course, the risk is that Liverpool may become just another Premier League club who live to regret signing a player on the basis of an impressive goal tally in the Eredivisie. 

After all, for every Ruud van Nistelrooy there has been a Mateja Kezman, and only the brave or the foolish would attempt the extol the virtues of Afonso Alves to any self-respecting Middlesbrough fan.

However, Suarez's current ability and potential for further improvement minimises the risk which comes with his slightly-inflated price tag. He may take time to adjust, but when he does, he is should become a considerable asset.

At any rate, the chance which NESV have taken in bringing Suarez into the Premier League pales almost into insignificance when compared with the decision to pay £35m for Andy Carroll.

When Newcastle United placed a price tag of £30m on Carroll's head at the beginning of January, it was rightly interpreted as a club plucking a completely unrealistic fee from thin air to ward off any potential suitors.

Never in a million years did Mike Ashley, Derek Llambias or Alan Pardew actually think that anyone would be willing to meet this outrageous valuation.

Not only did Liverpool meet it, they exceeded it. In doing so, they have taken a gamble of monumental proportions. 

At the time of writing, Andy Carroll is not worth £35m. He is barely worth half of that.

Like Chelsea and Fernando Torres, the fee Liverpool have paid is based on the player they think Andy Carroll can become, not the player he is today. But unlike Chelsea and Torres, Liverpool have no solid evidence that Andy Carroll is capable of shining consistently at the very highest level.

The 21-year-old has shown fantastic potential in his first few months in the Premier League, as well as standing out in a wretched England side in last November's friendly against France. But he remains far from the finished article on or off the pitch.

Carroll's immaturity and personal problems have already resulted in several court appearances, and the young man's inner demons provide yet another obstacle to this rough diamond being fashioned into the jewel of the Anfield crown.

It is a project which Kenny Dalglish will undoubtedly set himself to with relish, but Carroll's price tag has raised the stakes to such an extent that it is now one which Liverpool cannot afford to fail. 

NESV's logic will undoubtedly be that a swift and decisive response was needed to quell the unease created, both internally and externally, by Fernando Torres' acrimonious departure. 

To this end, the signings of Suarez and Carroll have already succeeded, encouraging an atmosphere of cautious optimism around the red half of Merseyside.

Similarly, Roman Abramovich will hope that his own investment will breathe life into a faltering season, and give the Chelsea fans hope that a campaign which is unlikely to result in Premier League glory may yet yield other, and perhaps greater, rewards.

It is with almost inevitable timing that Chelsea host Liverpool this Sunday. Rest assured that both Roman Abramovich and John W. Henry will be watching with breath as baited as the rest of us, looking frantically for the first signs that their gambles are starting to bear fruit.

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