Transfer needs, targets for Premier League contenders
Just after the midway point in the season, six Premier League teams are separated by eight points, and defending champion Manchester United lingers 11 points behind first-place Arsenal. Despite all of their struggles in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, the Red Devils are just five points out of a Champions League place, though.
With the transfer window open until the end of the month, a statement player signing here or there could tilt the balance of the league in what has become one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory. Here is what all of the top seven teams could use in the transfer market to boost their chances in the final half of the 2013-14 campaign:
Arsene Wenger is notoriously reluctant to spend money at any time, and especially in January, but there is a screaming need for a central striker as backup to Olivier Giroud, particularly with Theo Walcott, who could deputize in the role, out until next season with a knee injury. Nicklas Bendtner is making good progress in his recovery from an ankle problem, while Lukas Podolski, poor as a central striker against Cardiff, is back after four months out, but still, quality cover is necessary.
Wenger has denied any interest in Dimitar Berbatov, but a move for Juventus's Mirko Vucinic, who could also play in the line of three, makes sense. Arsenal reportedly wanted a loan until the end of the season; Juve is holding out for a permanent deal worth £8 million. Arsenal and Liverpool are reportedly both keen on Anderlecht's Senegalese center back Cheikhou Kouyate. Arsenal had previously tried to sign him only for him to be refused a work permit, but he now has Belgian citizenship, removing that obstacle.
City's summer spending was well-directed enough that it has no obvious flaws to counter, its depth of squad allowing it to overcome losing Sergio Aguero, Stevan Jovetic, Pablo Zabaleta and Micah Richards to injury at the same time. It's likely that in the long term City may look to bring in a more obviously defensive midfielder and perhaps replace Edin Dzeko with a more consistent central striker.
The only position it may be tempted to bolster in January is at center back, where injuries to Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic and Joleon Lescott's loss of form have left it more reliant than was surely intended on the aging Martin Demichelis. Celtic's elegant Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk is a possible target.
With center forwards misfiring -- Demba Ba, Samuel Eto'o and Fernando Torres have scored just seven league goals between them this season -- Chelsea's main concern is finding a new striker. Reports suggesting an improbable reunion between Mario Balotelli and Jose Mourinho have been denied, leaving Radamel Falcao as the main target. The Colombian is unsettled at Monaco and has the advantage of not being cup-tied for the Champions League, but that deal seems more likely to be done in the summer.
It's also likely Mourinho will drop further hints about a bid for Wayne Rooney, if only to unsettle United further. The suggestion that Mourinho would like to use a 4-3-3 more frequently may also lead to a move for a central midfielder. Interest in Fredy Guarin may have cooled after Inter said he would cost £15 million.
Liverpool finds itself in an unexpected position. Few thought it would be doing anything more than challenging for top four and Champions League qualification this season, but with all the title contenders bar United still to play at home, there is the possibility of a genuine tilt at the trophy, which might encourage a couple of January buys.
Liverpool has been strikingly linked with moves for Basel's Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah, who would relieve the burden on Philippe Coutinho, and Sevilla's Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who offers creativity either centrally or on the left.
Like Liverpool, Everton finds itself contemplating making signings to bolster an unexpected challenge, in its case for the top four. With Nikica Jelvaic seemingly on his way out, perhaps to Crystal Palace, there is need of an additional forward to cover for the on-loan Romelu Lokaku, with Roberto Martinez thought to be interested in another Belgian, 20-year-old Michy Batshuayi from Standard Liege. He has also been linked with Arsenal, though.
Given the disruption caused by the summer signings, Tottenham is probably best served by letting things settle and trying to bed in the new players it already has rather than buying yet more recruits. With Jermain Defoe joining Toronto, though, there is a clear need for an additional center forward, particularly as past history suggests Emmanuel Adebayor struggles to play consistently well for protracted periods.
Spurs, too, have been linked with Vucinic, who is frustrated at his lack of pitch time as the Fernando Llorente-Carlos Tevez partnership blossoms, with Erik Lamela perhaps moving in the opposite direction.
The need for a dynamic central midfielder remains as pressing as ever, but United is in such a mess there are arguments for strengthening in all areas. David Moyes seems determined to bring in an attacking left back to ease the strain on Patrice Evra and he could do with cover on the right as well: with a strategy rooted in getting crosses in from the fullbacks, United become very predictable when Rafael is unavailable and the more staid Phil Jones or Chris Smalling plays on that side.
Longer term, with Rio Ferdinand's career coming to the end, Rooney stalling on a new contract and Robin van Persie's future unclear, there is need for a new central defender and center forward as well, while the wingers haven't exactly impressed this season. In this window, though, the priority must be the middle of midfield: United could go back in for Ander Herrera of Athletic Bilbao, while there are persistent rumors linking Benfica's Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic to Old Trafford.
Moyes also seems certain to revive his interest in either Fabio Coentrao or Leighton Baines, two attack-minded left backs.