Chelsea are braced to receive a club record bid from Manchester United for their unsettled attacker Juan Mata, an offer which will test the London club's resolve to retain the Spain international despite his fringe status in the first team this season.
Mata, Chelsea's player of the season in each of his two full campaigns with the club, has lost his integral role under José Mourinho this term and has found himself limited to 11 Premier League starts to date. Indeed, with Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar now the preferred trio behind a lone striker, the 25-year-old World Cup and European Championships winner has not made an appearance since his angry reaction to being substituted early in the second half at Southampton on New Year's Day.
There are concerns in Mata's camp that his continued absence from the side at Stamford Bridge will hamper his chances of travelling to Brazil with the national team in the summer to defend the World Cup claimed four years ago. Chelsea have been steadfast in their stance that the Spaniard is not for sale and still has a role to play at the club, though that outlook could change if the player now agitates for a move and a hefty bid is forthcoming, particularly with one eye on summer strengthening up front.
United said on Monday night that no offer has been lodged, though there is a recognition behind the scenes that Mata would complement the champions' squad and, given his lack of opportunities this season, might be open to a move to Old Trafford. It would still take a bid well in excess of the club record £30.7m United paid to Tottenham Hotspur for Dimitar Berbatov in 2008 for Chelsea even to consider selling to a rival Premier League club and even then the London club would part only reluctantly.
There is an acceptance that Mata's situation will have to be addressed at some stage, though the more natural opportunity had seemed like the summer, and Mourinho will be reluctant to weaken his own squad in the mid-winter window with his team still competing concertedly for honours on three fronts.
Kevin de Bruyne has already been sold to Wolfsburg for £18m and, while Nemanja Matic has added steel to central midfield, Chelsea will be loath to part with another of their forward–thinking players, and particularly one as popular as Mata, with so little time left – and a lack of sufficient quality readily available – to find a replacement before the market closes.
A further complication is the future of Wayne Rooney, the England striker Chelsea covet and United are determined not to sell to a rival English club. The 28-year-old is in the final 17 months of his contract at Old Trafford with Mourinho having suggested last week that he anticipated United would sell to a foreign club if a new deal cannot be agreed. At the same press briefing, when asked if Mata would be sold, he replied emphatically: "No."
Yet United's predicament, 14 points from the top of the Premier League and six from the Champions League qualification places following their 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, could yet force them to explore whether that stance can be shifted with Chelsea now expecting a bid for a player who cost them £23.5m from Valencia in the summer of 2011.
United, for their part, are adamant that they will not be panicked into last-minute buys during the transfer window, even if they lose to Cardiff City next week and fall further behind in the race for Champions League qualification.
United's transfer policy will remain focused on a long-term approach, with only the very best being targeted. That means no rash moves for ordinary Premier League players and an attempt to sign Newcastle United's Yohan Cabaye has already been ruled out by David Moyes.
Mata, however, is recognised inside Old Trafford as a high-level talent and it is possible Moyes views him as a long-term replacement for Rooney should the forward leave United.
If United lose at Old Trafford next week, against a side managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjær and other results go against them, the champions could find themselves a minimum of three victories short of the top four with a few days of the transfer window remaining. Yet this would not lead to the club changing strategy.
The prospect of not being able to attract high-class talent by being out of Europe's elite club competition is of no concern to United. They are confident that the sizeable £80m-plus transfer budget at the manager's disposal, allied to their world-famous name, will ensure United can still strengthen.
After Sunday's defeat at Chelsea, which left United six points behind Liverpool in fourth, Nemanja Vidic said the team have to remain unified. "It's important we stick together and work hard for each other," said the captain, who was sent off late in the game. "If we do that, I think we can turn things around. If you look at the whole game, I don't think we played too badly. I don't think losing three goals really tells the story.
"We lost two goals from set pieces and one deflection. Apart from that they didn't create too many chances. They didn't have many shots on target but scored three times. It's disappointing. I don't think we were clinical enough in their box and we didn't defend well enough in ours. We didn't give them many chances but everything they had they took. They punished us. It's just small things. Small details this season are making big differences and changing games."
"We just have to stay positive and keep fighting to be in amongst the top teams at the end of the season. Hopefully, with a bit of luck, we'll have better days. We were good for long periods, but it was one of those days that turned out badly for us."