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Striker saga shows Chelsea are lagging behind Manchester clubs

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte looks dejected after defeat to Arsenal. The Italian admits his side lack the purchasing power of the two Manchester giants. (REUTERS)
LONDON: Antonio Conte remarked this week for all they would have liked to sign Alexis Sanchez, Chelsea could not pursue him because they knew that if it came to a bidding war over his wages, they could not compete with the Manchester clubs. There is no reason to suppose that was anything but the truth, which represents a remarkable turnaround in the way Chelsea conduct themselves financially. Instead of the Chilean, the Blues found themselves chasing an increasingly unlikely series of English forward.
The link with Andy Carroll at least made some kind of sense. Conte has been consistent in his desire to bring a target man to Chelsea. He had tried to land Fernando Llorente before Tottenham signed him from Swansea and there were attempts to resurrect that deal for this window.
When that fell through, Carroll was a reasonable alternative. When fit he does still represent an extraordinary force. He demolished Liverpool almost single-handedly last season. To say that he is good in the air does not do justice to his awesome power. He is not just capable of launching ferocious headers goalwards, but of acting as a battering ram to get into position first. And he is rather better on the ground than he is often given credit for as well.
Given the trend toward ball-playing center-backs, defenders whose skill is their positioning rather than the more traditional attributes of winning aerial duels and tackles, Carroll could have provided a fascinating means of attacking their weakness. But the deal fell through because he will be out for a month with an ankle injury — which is the story of Carroll’s career, every moment of promise ruined by a body that lets him down again and again.
And that was when things got strange, as though once Chelsea had started to think about a classic English nine, they became fixated on the idea. If not Carroll, then Peter Crouch. If not Peter Crouch then Ashley Barnes. Only his arrest on suspicion of tax fraud, presumably, prevented Glenn Murray being added to the list. In the end, somebody finally remembered the big center-forward with Premier League experience who had played so well against Chelsea earlier this season and the conversation turned to Roma’s Edin Dzeko.
It is understood that only a disagreement over the length of the deal being offered is holding up the signing.
As the saga has played out over the past week, the temptation has been to blink and wonder what on earth was going on, but Chelsea’s search for a forward has been indicative of three inter-related issues at the club. It really comes down to the problem of replacing Diego Costa, who managed to be both poacher and brawler, somebody who could physically dominate an opponent but was also a superb finisher.
His ostensible replacement, Alvaro Morata, has flickered but seems to have struggled with the pressure of being the first-choice forward for the first time in his career. He has never quite offered the physical threat Diego Costa did and his three wasted one-on-ones in the league game against Arsenal suggested a player whose confidence has ebbed.
With Conte not fancying Michy Batshuayi — a slightly odd aversion given how effective the Belgian has been at times — that required a new signing.
Chelsea are short of home-grown players (in part because they loan so many youth players out) and so could do with somebody who ticks that box. They have also embarked on a policy of retrenchment that means their funding is relatively limited. They can just about afford the signing of a 31-year-old Bosnian — although not on a long contract — but are not competing for big-name players in their prime.
Conte may or may not see Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fitting into his side, but it is revealing that with the forward desperate to leave Borussia Dortmund and the club looking to sell, Chelsea have not even been part of the conversation, his £50 million-plus ($70 million) price tag too much for them.
What that means in the longer term is debatable. It is hard to
understand why there has been such a change of policy and, while it is hard to imagine Chelsea slowly fading away, at the moment their transfer policy seems both to frustrate managers and to place them a level behind the Manchester clubs.