ARSENAL were closing in on the signature of Marouane Chamakh last night after the Bordeaux striker's proposed move to Liverpool collapsed amid some acrimony.
Liverpool believed they had moved ahead of their rivals, who also include Inter Milan and West Ham United, in the race for Chamakh by offering the Morocco player a lucrative pre-contract agreement during intensive talks with his advisers early last month.
Sources close to the deal indicated last night that Chamakh has rejected Liverpool's approach, paving the way for him to sign for Arsenal. The north London club would have no problem matching the £60,000-a-week wages on offer at Anfield and are in the process of finalising a five-year deal.
Signing Chamakh would represent a triumph of patience for Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, who has been monitoring the 26-year-old for some time. Bordeaux rejected an £8m offer from Arsenal last summer, but Chamakh's contract with the French club expires at the end of the season and he will be available to sign on a free transfer.
Chamakh's advisers are believed to have wanted him to sign for Liverpool, and for most of last month Rafael Benitez, the club's manager, appeared to be favourite to seal the deal. However, the Spaniard was left angry and disappointed yesterday.
Benitez, whose transfer dealings have been undermined by the Anfield hierarchy in the past, expected things to be different when Christian Purslow took over as managing director. However, sources close to the player suggested that Liverpool mismanaged the deal, dragging their heels and being too fussy with their contractual demands.
While Wenger could take satisfaction from outmanoeuvring one of his big-four rivals, he came under attack from Michael Ballack yesterday. The Chelsea midfield player accused the Arsenal manager of making feeble excuses for defeat and condemning Chelsea's style of play.
Wenger's claim that Arsenal were "completely dominant" in Sunday's 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge has struck a nerve in the dressing room at Chelsea.
Wenger's explanation for an eighth defeat in Arsenal's past nine matches against Chelsea and Manchester United was among the most bizarre he has offered. The Frenchman argued that his side deserved to win because they had more of the possession and claimed that Chelsea did not play football, overlooking the fact that after taking a two-goal lead within 23 minutes the home side had no need to chase the game.
Wenger's only hint of praise for the Premier League leaders was a description of them as efficient, but Ballack's response indicated that Chelsea's players are fed up of being characterised in such a manner.
"He always says this when he loses," the Germany midfield player said. "He always finds an excuse. But football is not possession or nice passes. Good football is winning games and that's what we do when we play them.
"We deserved the win because we played very effectively. It was how we wanted to play. Maybe in the second half we concentrated a bit too much on defending, but if you're 2-0 up you can do this. For me, good football is a mix of winning, successful football, mental strength, good football technically and also physically. I think we have a good mix."
John Terry thanked the Chelsea fans yesterday for the backing that they showed him on Sunday as he was barracked by visiting supporters after being stripped of the England captaincy. Terry made a point of undertaking a personal lap of honour to applaud the supporters.
The Chelsea captain missed training yesterday to have treatment for a thigh injury, but is expected to play in the match away to Everton tomorrow evening and will travel with the squad today.
"On a personal note, I'd like to thank every single fan," Terry told Chelsea TV. "It's been a really emotional day for me and the way the fans have been with me for the last two weeks, honestly it's incredible."