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January bargains are out there – for those willing to look

Prices are generally inflated in the winter transfer window, but it shouldn't matter if the right player is involved, writes Paul Wilson

This time two years ago Gerard Houllier made one of the best decisions of his short and unhappy time at Aston Villa and agreed to pay Sunderland £18m for Darren Bent. Villa were flirting with relegation at the time, but Bent scored the winner against Manchester City on his Villa Park debut and his nine goals in 16 games for his new club were instrumental in reversing the slide towards the Championship.

Bent can no longer command a place under Paul Lambert – he is currently out of contention with a long-term hamstring injury – and Villa are once again dropping down the Premier League table like a stone, so the logical thing to do is allow him to join relegation rivals like Fulham or QPR in January and use the money to bring in a striker from Norwich, where Lambert used to work.

It may not happen quite like that. Even now Bent is not everyone's idea of value for around £12m, but that it is even being talked about says all you need to know about the peculiar madness of football's January sales. Bent is that rarity, a winter buy that worked out well, yet two years down the line he is out of favour and looking for another move.

Chelsea's still astonishing splurge on Fernando Torres in the 2011 window being the exception that proves the rule; most leading clubs prefer to do transfer business in the summer these days and leave the panic buying to those nearer the bottom of the table with more to panic about.

Manchester United still need a driving midfielder, and have done so for a while, but as they are top of the table there seems no immediate need for Alex Ferguson to make mid-season adjustments, even if he does keep overestimating the effectiveness of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. It is clever of Ferguson to keep the two veterans involved, the experience and knowledge they can pass on to younger players is invaluable, yet almost 14 years on from the treble-winning team even the venerable duo themselves must be surprised when they are both picked to start a game with younger midfielders left on the bench.

Ferguson's tinkering and slightly erratic team selections may be one reason why United have performed so fitfully this season, and the fact they are so far ahead of the competition does not say a great deal for Premier League standards. Manchester City should be running them much closer, but with the same playing staff as last season Roberto Mancini's side have lost their consistency. Whether more outlay can correct that is debatable.

City have good players right through the side now and can only bring in new big names at the expense of old big names. David Villa sounds fine in theory, but which of City's present front three would make way? Mancini could do with either getting more out of Mario Balotelli or cutting his losses and getting rid of him, but as the manager himself is widely expected to be replaced in the not-too-distant future, he is unlikely to be given a blank cheque in January and may have to content himself with one or two short-term deals to provide cover during the Africa Cup of Nations.

While Chelsea remain the team most likely to throw money at any given problem, they too may be making a managerial change at the end of the season, despite the first stirrings of a campaign to make Rafa Benitez a permanent appointment. Benitez is good at pure coaching, improving results and performances with a given set of players, and with the players Chelsea presently possess there is every chance he can at least open up the title race beyond Manchester, even if making up the gap on United is a lot to ask.

You can never completely discount the possibility of Roman Abramovich making another manager a present of an expensive striker he does not want or need, but the transfer emphasis at Chelsea this season is on players moving out, with Daniel Sturridge talking to Liverpool and Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole preparing to leave. While Benitez may have his own thoughts on that, with Lampard in particular still having a lot to offer as a senior professional, what the vast majority of clubs would do is sort out the managerial uncertainty before committing any serious money to incoming transfers.

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That is one reason why you tend to see few managerial changes immediately before the January window, as clubs decide whether to back their man with more money or find someone else who can be trusted to spend it more wisely. Other reasons include poor results and the need to give the new man a decent period of time in which to turn things round, but there is no doubt that the necessity of a spree in January concentrates the minds of directors. Spending money to get out of trouble is sometimes effective, as Villa proved with Bent, though it tends to be expensive at this time of year and it is easy to end up throwing good money after bad.

Everyone is expecting Harry Redknapp to start doing that some time soon – funny how he initially said he might not need to do much business in January but is already being linked with players from Newcastle to Shanghai – whereas give or take a move for Andrey Arshavin, QPR's fellow strugglers Reading are likely to keep expenditure to a minimum and sink or swim as a group.

It is a tricky decision to get right; some clubs want to stay up at all costs, some are better suited to sticking together and coming back stronger after a relegation. But whatever the financial situation there is little truth now in Ferguson's sniffy assertion that there's no value in the market.

Papiss Cisse and Nikica Jelavic were arguably the pick of last January's transfer business, at £8m and £5m respectively, and not only did the United manager admit he had never heard of the former, he said the same about Michu, Swansea's £2m bargain of the season. Michu was a summer signing: it is much harder to obtain such a snip in January, but the players are out there if you know where to look.


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