Be afraid, be very afraid . . .
The transfer window is open for business so expect panic buys and, well, panic, writes Dion Fanning
So it begins. For a month, the speculation has a purpose, a barely verifiable link with reality. Although as usual it works better if there is no connection with the facts and instead is merely a fantasy to keep hope alive. In football, as in life, hope gets a hard time of it January.
The idea that there is a transformative signing out there takes hold once the transfer window opens, even if the evidence suggests otherwise. Henrik Larsson, Shay Given and Javier Mascherano are among the few who have been immediate successes and shaped a club's season when signed in January.
While Manchester United bought Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra four years ago this month, those were desperate times for Alex Ferguson who was engaging in long-term rebuilding in mid-season. Evra and Vidic helped hugely with that, but they were long-term signings amid the panic. Vidic is now being linked with a summer move to Spain. (It is one of the quirks of the January window that it is also the time when there is more speculation about the summer. The lines of communication are open and people can't stop talking.)
Most clubs are looking at the short-term now, rather than planning for the future. If a club's plans for the future are working out they don't need to buy in January and if things are going badly, many think that January is not the time to solve the problems.
Well, the prudent do, but crises lead to panic so there will be plenty looking for something, anything, to fix them right now.
Even Harry Redknapp describes the January window as a "nightmare" but that is like a serious year-round drinker getting fed up with the Christmas revellers. Harry likes to do deals properly and it will be possible to gauge the market by his engagement with it.
Tottenham are in a good position but Redknapp would probably think they could do with a boost. Last season, they were in crisis and he brought Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane back. This January he may let one of them go again and it won't be Defoe. Keane may be saved if Roman Pavlyuchenko is let go but it may be a temporary reprieve. Pavlyuchenko is likely to beat Keane to the door and unlike Ireland's captain, he is eager to go.
They haven't seen much sign of his eagerness at White Hart Lane. At the North London derby a few months ago, Redknapp's assistant, Kevin Bond, jogged from the bench to remind Pavlyuchenko of the minimum expected. Bond started jogging up and down on the spot using the internationally recognised sign for 'run about' Pavlyuchenko dismissed the idea as just another example of the cruelty inflicted on him at Tottenham.
If he leaves, Redknapp, who has been told he must sell before he can buy, may bring in David James from Portsmouth and Ryan Babel from Liverpool.
'Grant backs Portsmouth to survive', one headline screamed recently. Avram Grant was talking about getting the club out of relegation but existence is Portsmouth's concern now, not Premier League survival.
They have sold most of their talent but everyone is up for grabs and Jamie O'Hara, who may be of more interest to Ireland supporters in 2010, is one player who will be returning to Tottenham. James will be keen to go with him. Everyone must go but getting rid of them will be the problem. Portsmouth don't need to sell before they can buy, they need to sell to survive.
But they are the extreme example of the new reality. Manchester United need to buy, especially a goalkeeper, but Ferguson says there is no value while others suspect there is no money.
They are reported to have offered Nani plus cash (that's a lot of cash) for the Benfica winger Angel di Maria, who tore Everton apart recently, but United may be challenged on that deal by a club who can offer better terms.
Manchester City have a need to spend money too and they won't be too interested in the prospect of marginally better value. Naturally, they have been linked with everyone, apart from Lee Carsley, but they may continue the plan under Mark Hughes and go for the middle-market rather than the spectaculars in January. Roberto Mancini is said to be interested in Ivan Cordoba from Inter but City fans would probably be more excited by the signing of Mario Balotelli, even if Inter are unlikely to want to sell at this time. Matthew Upson could be the most likely arrival, although somebody like Di Maria might be persuaded too.
Mancini must also accommodate all his strikers, especially as Jo may be on his way back from Everton having spent the busy Christmas period relaxing in Brazil.
City approach this time differently to every other English club, but the denial of reports in Spain that Sheikh Mansour was interested in buying Real Madrid illustrates that all this could be taken away from them, and more savagely even than at Portsmouth.
Yet most clubs would take City's problems right now. Jo's departure may allow Everton to take another loan signing but not much more.
Also busy relaxing on a beach was Andriy Voronin, who spent Christmas in Florida. There was an attempt to generate some outrage by contrasting the pictures of him frolicking with his blonde wife in the sun with Liverpool battling in the snow at Villa Park, but it seemed to be the best solution for everyone concerned. No Liverpool fan would have been cheered by the news that he had abandoned his holiday and was keen to lend a hand.
Voronin will almost certainly leave this month as Liverpool enter full crisis mode with a series of short-term signings. Maxi Rodriguez is a smart loan move while Ruud van Nistelrooy is strongly linked. Despite his reluctance to run about in London, Pavluychenko could be a better option. Arsenal need a goalkeeeper too but their priority is a striker. Wenger may wait until the summer to move for Marouane Chamakh, who will then be out of contract at Bordeaux. Wenger has been busier in previous January windows than some of his comments would suggest, buying Jose Antonio Reyes for a club record fee six years ago and Andrei Arshavin last January. Arsenal were struggling then in a way they are not now, so Wenger is likely to persist with the players he has, even if some of the best are injured.
The rest will be busy, or try to be busy, or give the impression, for fans who demand that they are busy, of being busy. Martin O'Neill looked reluctant to talk about the window on the first day of January, knowing it would set a dangerous precedent.
Carsley is one to watch as there may be a tussle between Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane for a player ready to leave Birmingham, but any departure might be delayed following a knee injury picked up in a rare start against Nottingham Forest yesterday. Aiden McGeady is linked with them but Alex McLeish will also want to keep the solidity that has been the most impressive feature of their excellent season.
Chelsea paid nine million in agents' fees, second only to Manchester City, in the past year but if they are to spend as is speculated, most persistently on Sergio Aguero, it would be counter to the austerity at the club. They have wiped their debt by turning Roman Abramovich's loan into equity but he may not be in a position to do that again.
Chelsea haven't spent more than £20m on a player since they signed Andriy Shevchenko in 2006 and the knowledge that the closest they came to spending more than that was when they moved for Robinho may make them hesitate again.
Instead, Chelsea have been paying agents and managers, settling with Scolari and his assistants for £12m last season. This may be the last window they can buy in so they could afford to do some spending as well as needing it. Soon they may be raising money through sales.
Clubs will try to be wary of panic but the demands, as O'Neill said last week, are becoming relentless. January is a time to get things done but things don't always work out as planned. Eric Djemba-Djemba, Georgios Samaras and Jean-Alain Boumsong have all been signed in January.
Be afraid, be very afraid.