FERNANDO Torres will not leave Chelsea in the January transfer window but for the first time doubts over the long-term Stamford Bridge future of the most expensive player in British football history have started to emerge.
Chelsea yesterday moved swiftly to dismiss speculation the club would consider bids of as little as GBP20m ($AU31.2m) for the Spain international, who has scored just three Premier League goals since moving to west London from Liverpool on the final day of this year's January transfer window, insisting the 27-year-old remains "part of the club's long-term plans".
More pressingly, of course, Torres will be expected to lead the line for Andre Villas-Boas's side when Didier Drogba departs for the African Cup of Nations next month. The Ivorian, whose form has relegated the former Atletico Madrid striker to the substitutes' bench in recent weeks, could be absent for as much as six weeks, and with Nicolas Anelka due to depart for Shanghai Shenhua and Salomon Kalou likely to follow, the Portuguese manager will be left with just Torres and Daniel Sturridge as senior forwards.
But despite the club's public stance, and Torres's immediate importance, it is thought Villas-Boas would be willing to countenance a sale in the summer, should a suitable offer arrive.
The manager discussed the possibility of selling the striker last summer, just six months into his career at the club, only to afford him a second chance to rediscover his spark; Torres's poor displays, combined with Villas-Boas's interest in the likes of Edinson Cavani, the Napoli striker, and his former charge Radamel Falcao - once of Porto and now with cash-strapped Atletico Madrid - indicate that he will not be afforded a third.
Cavani, the prolific Uruguay international, has been in a rich vein of form ever since moving to Napoli, helping the club beat Manchester City to a place in the Champions League knockout stages. While the Italian side's president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, would be reluctant to let his most valuable asset leave, he is said to be conscious that the fee would help construct an even stronger unit.
Falcao, meanwhile, was Villas-Boas's primary attacking requirement last summer, but joined Atletico - Torres's former club - for GBP38m ($AU59.4m) when the manager elected to stand by the Spaniard and Drogba. The Spanish side's financial troubles, though, would make a sale possible.
Villas-Boas is not thought to be targeting a striker in the January transfer window, despite the absence of Drogba. Chelsea have not yet made any formal contact with Universidad de Chile over their much-coveted forward Eduardo Vargas, rated at around GBP10m ($AU15.6m). The Portuguese is, it is thought, more concerned with reviving his interest in the Uruguayan winger Alvaro Pereira, available from Porto for GBP20m ($AU31.2m).
The prospect of Drogba remaining in the long-term was boosted when Villas-Boas last week agreed that the 34-year-old could play at the highest level for another two seasons; it is Drogba's desire to be granted a two-year contract extension which has prevented him agreeing new terms at Stamford Bridge thus far.
Chelsea also issued a stringent denial yesterday that Ashley Cole, the England international, was responsible for a 30-man meIee in the Stamford Bridge tunnel after Monday's 2-1 victory over Manchester City.
A club statement read: "Contrary to reports, Ashley Cole did not say anything to the opposition in the tunnel... Ashley has huge respect for the players and staff at Manchester City, many of whom he knows personally."