LONDON - Expect plenty of speculation about Cristiano Ronaldo, David Villa, Wesley Sneijder, Frank Lampard and Theo Walcott, among others, to be flying around for the next month.
Yes, the "silly season" has arrived.
European soccer's January transfer window opened for business yesterday, giving clubs a month to strengthen their squads for the second half of the season.
Top teams operating strategic transfer plans, such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United, rarely make major deals during this period. Likely targets are usually tied up by Champions League restrictions and managers can be put off by inflated prices and a preference to add new players in the offseason. However, an inspired January signing - whether a loan or permanent move - can make the difference between winning a title, qualifying for the Champions League or Europa League or surviving relegation, meaning plenty of deals will go through over the next 31 days.
The cash-rich English Premier League is usually the place where the big acquisitions are made, especially on deadline day. And considering the lucrative television deals lying in wait from next season as well as the impoverished state of many leagues across the continent following Europe's financial crisis, this should be the case this season, too.
"Many of the traditional European leagues are facing economic problems so we would suggest the trend of overseas players coming to the Premier League to ply their trade will continue and outweigh transfers between English clubs," said James Skelland, a player representative for James Grant Sport Management. "We would anticipate that there will be more loan moves," Skelland added, "which tend to suit all parties better, and some permanent moves made by clubs who are looking to stave off relegation or push for European places."
English clubs memorably spent 225 million pounds (then $362 million ) in the January 2011 window, defying the recession. In the nine winter windows since 2004, nearly a billion pounds have been splashed out.
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who has dubbed the transfer window the "silly season," has virtually ruled out making any signings in January, with his team top of the Premier League. However, his rival coaches are poised to make moves.
Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini indicated Monday that he would "probably" go into the market while Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger has money to spend, especially if he fails to keep hold of Walcott, who appears to be holding out for a big wage increase with his contract expiring in June.
"If we find a player who will give us something special, we will do it - but in January that isn't easy," said Wenger, who has been linked with Villa of Barcelona.
Wenger, like Ferguson, is not a fan of the January transfer window, although he couldn't resist the temptation to dip into it in 2009 when he beat the deadline to sign Russia winger Andrey Arshavin for 15 million pounds.
Chelsea, the European champion, should be one of the most active of the big English clubs. The 34-year-old Lampard is out of contract in the summer and could be sold, along with forward Daniel Sturridge reportedly going to Liverpool, and the club has been linked with moves for Newcastle forward Demba Ba and Atletico Madrid striker Radamel Falcao.
Either player would join a squad containing Fernando Torres, the most famous January transfer signing after switching from Liverpool to Chelsea for 50 million pounds (then $81 million ) in 2011.
Ba, the joint-second top scorer in the Premier League, has a release clause of 7 million pounds in his contract and Newcastle manager Alan Pardew said Friday it is "even (money ) whether he'll stay or go."
In Italy, the future of Sneijder has been a topic of much debate. Although Inter manager Andrea Stramaccioni says there's still room for him, the unsettled Dutch playmaker is expected to leave. England is a likely destination.
Over at AC Milan, which is seventh in Serie A and struggling financially, one of the team's two Brazilian strikers, Alexandre Pato or Robinho, is likely to leave and the club has been linked with Didier Drogba as a replacement.
Starved of action on the pitch because of the winter break, the sports pages in Spain have been dominated by the upcoming transfer window and the potential departures of three of La Liga's top forwards.
Ronaldo has been linked with a move away from Real Madrid ever since he said he was "sad" in September. Talk of a move back to Man United refuses to go away, despite Ferguson recently claiming the Portugal forward was "unbuyable."
Villa, Spain's record goal-scorer, is more likely to leave La Liga. British media are reporting that Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are interested in the 31-year-old forward, who spent eight months sidelined with a broken leg and has found it hard to win a place in Barcelona's starting lineup since his return.
Falcao, meanwhile, said Saturday he doesn't expect to leave Atletico until at least the summer.
"I'm proud that so many great clubs have manifested an interest in me, but they will have to wait until the end of the season, then we will see what might happen," he said. "Leaving Atletico in the winter transfer window is absolutely not on."
Money talks, however, and agents' phones are sure to be red-hot throughout January, when clubs' fortunes can be revived and coaches' reputations destroyed.