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07.08.2005 Sports News

£21,000,000 misfit

By IAN HAWKEY for Sunday Times
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The soap opera that is Chelsea's battle to sign Michael Essien continues to roll on, but will it take its toll on the Ghanaian?

THE summer's long drawn-out yet seemingly inevitable transfer of Michael Essien from Lyon to Chelsea should be concluded over the next 48 hours. The clubs are believed to have reached provisional agreement on a fee of around £23m after talks began on a private yacht in St Tropez on Friday, and continued yesterday, between Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon and Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon's president.

The saga has gone on through the summer, with various Chelsea approaches to the club — where the Ghana midfielder is under contract until 2008 — turned down by Aulas, until this weekend.

Lyon have been holding out for £32m; Chelsea's initial valuation was less than half that, though their offers climbed slowly until last night.

Aulas confirmed: “Kenyon was here and progress has been made. We are closer now to agreeing a price. Although nothing has been finalised yet I want to sort this out this weekend, once and for all.

“I anticipate further meetings over the weekend and perhaps Roman Abramovich will be involved.”

Lyon's hand has been somewhat forced by the player's apparent reluctance to play for the club any longer, having originally declared a desire to move to Stamford Bridge several weeks ago.

Gerard Houllier, the former Liverpool manager and now coach at Lyon, included Essien in his squad for this evening's first home match of the new French league season, against Strasbourg. But Houllier knows Essien's desires have long since wandered elsewhere and it is unlikely he will field him.

The player missed Lyon's opening game at Le Mans last weekend with gastro-enteritis, a condition that some of the French press have reclassified over the last few days as “une gastro-entérite(?)”, with the question mark a part of the diagnosis.

Essien is afflicted by pangs, for sure. He wants to join Chelsea, who would like to recruit him. Chelsea's trouble is that whenever they enter the transfer market, the market develops gastro-hyperinflation.

Abramovich is a principal carrier of this disease: when he enters a deal, prices around him swell suddenly and alarmingly. Essien regards himself as the latest sufferer.

“If I had a player who was desperate to leave,” said Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho on Friday, “I would have to come to the conclusion I couldn't keep him.

“If this transfer happens, I'll be happy,” added the Chelsea manager. “If it doesn't, I'm not going to panic.”

It was a statement apparently designed to take Lyon closer to panic. Aulas had been claiming other Premiership bidders were out there but convinced nobody that they were considering paying anything like £30m for Essien. The Ghanaian is not yet Steven Gerrard, nor Frank Lampard, nor Michael Ballack, nor half a dozen proven central midfielders with a vaguely comparable repertoire: the energy to traverse the space between boxes and contribute goals. He hasn't yet acquired the experience or endured the regular examination of those players in elite company.

For Lyon, Essien has been excellent, inspiring and effective. But, at 22, he's still a young man who stars at the dominant club of only the fifth best league in Europe and has played a handful of matches in the Champions League – 18 — and been to one senior international tournament.

The latter is just a by-product of his young age and the fact that he is from Ghana, underachievers in international football, but, thanks partly to Essien, a national team on the up. His nationality would be a factor in any investment Essien's next employers make in the player, albeit a small one.

Ghana are in pole position to qualify for the World Cup finals in Germany next year for the first time in their history, elevating the profile of their leading players but also qualifying them for the African Nations Cup in the new year, an engagement that could take Essien out of the domestic season for up to four weeks. But it's not hard to see why Mourinho would admire him. Six foot and full of running, he was part of the vibrant midfield that took Lyon to within a penalty shoot-out – they lost it to PSV Eindhoven — of a European Cup semi-final in April and combines the tasks of defensive responsibility with sufficient attacking instincts to have scored five goals in 10 Champions League matches last term.

Essien came to European football five years ago from a Ghanaian club called Liberty Professionals and his first stop was Corsica, where he joined Bastia of the French first division. He was hardly a secret even then, having thrived at a junior international tournament for Ghana's age-group teams, winning a bronze medal at the 1999 world Under-17 championship, and reaching the final at the 2001 world youth championship. In between, he had a trial at Manchester United, and is said to have been thrilled to make the acquaintance of David Beckham.

He was not asked to continue the brief relationship by United. Instead he went to Bastia.

After three years in the French game, he attracted the attention of a few heavyweights. Lyon won a joust with Paris Saint- Germain, paying a little over £5m for him two summers ago. In May, he was elected Le Championnat's player of the year by his fellow professionals and tradition says there is only one way to go from there: the best players from French football, where average salaries are much lower than in the Premiership, Serie A or La Liga, invariably go abroad.

Didier Drogba, now of Chelsea then of Marseille, had been player of the season the year before Essien. He fetched £24m.

Essien has cut a gloomy figure as the endgame between Aulas and Abramovich drags on. And it's not because of the gastro-enteritis. His representative, Fabien Piveteau, clarified the absence of his client from first-team action for the last fortnight by saying: “He does not want to pick up bad injuries.”

He has been sent off in a pre-season friendly in Korea and on Friday morning was called to account by his current employer for a piece that had appeared in an English newspaper quoting Essien threatening to go on strike. “All made up,” Essien told Lyon, saying he had not spoken to the paper.

Having declared long ago his enthusiasm for a Chelsea move, Essien is now keeping his own counsel. His colleague, Juninho Pernambucano, told L'Equipe: “It's difficult to discuss the subject with him. He's the sort of player the team would miss, but it's sad to see him like this. We're aware he wants to leave.”

A Lyon insider added last night: “We have decided Essien should be sold because it is clear he no longer wishes to play for the club. Negotiations will continue but Essien should become a Chelsea player in the next 72 hours.”