Chelsea have made their aspirations clear as they seek to fill the Didier Drogba void. But will Manchester United comply?
Confirmation that Chelsea's eggs have now all been placed in the one Wayne Rooney-shaped basket came late in José Mourinho's first post-match press conference since his return to the club. Had the board bid for anyone else? "No, and we won't." So it's Rooney or bust? "Yes." The priority had been exposed, the eagerness to secure the England forward all too clear. As far as the Portuguese is concerned, a striker of this calibre could make the difference.
The attraction is obvious. Rooney boasts established pedigree to the tune of 156 goals in 292 Premier League starts for two clubs, Champions League winning experience and, with his bridges apparently burned at Old Trafford, a point to prove at the perceived slight of a diminished role at the title holders. Furthermore he is English, a significant factor when it comes to fulfilling the "homegrown" quota in Uefa competition. Chelsea would be willing to pay his hefty wage for those reasons alone, but the fact his arrival might fill a void that has arguably not been plugged since Didier Drogba's departure last summer would add to their urgency in the pursuit.
Fernando Torres scored 22 goals last season, and was prolific in the Europa League but, for all his industry, he has never really convinced since that £50m move from Liverpool in the winter of 2011. Demba Ba felt like a stop-gap. Romelu Lukaku, scorer of the only goal against Singha All Stars, is talented and powerful but raw, a player with a fine future but an apprenticeship still to serve.
Mourinho has bought a goalkeeper, a winger and a central midfielder but a forward was always going to be his primary target. It is there where his options are limited, for all that this team will employ only one striker once again in their starting lineup next term.
Rooney would be that target man, featuring in the No9 role he so relishes rather than as the No10 he has largely played behind Robin van Persie over the last year. The 27-year-old feels he has the movement, game intelligence and skill to thrive there. Mourinho, whose public confrontation of the issue on Wednesday suggested he is very much driving this pursuit, clearly shares that conviction. The striker scored 34 goals back in 2009-10, sometimes alongside Dimitar Berbatov but, in the key matches, largely as a lone man supplied by a creative midfield, and would again relish fulfilling the brief up front in the system that Mourinho is seeking to implement.
The Portuguese had outlined his approach in the buildup to Wednesday's game, his tactics to revolve on variations of an in-vogue 4-3-3 cum 4-2-3-1 with a forward supplied by visionary talents playing closely at his back. "It is my favourite system," Mourinho had said, his tweaks largely limited to whether he employs two defensive midfielders or only one in the centre. He name-checked five players – Kevin De Bruyne, Oscar, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and André Schürrle – who could play as a designated No10, the role Rooney rather endured last year behind Van Persie. The youngsters Lucas Piazón and Bertrand Traoré also enjoyed some time as the playmaker in Thailand; this is a squad awash with central creators, and which striker would not want to play in front of such a mouth-watering supply line?
While there is outrage at Chelsea at implications Mata, the club's player of the season for the last two years, might be used as a makeweight in any deal, quite what Torres makes of the pursuit of Rooney is unclear but predictable. The striker, like his compatriot, is still absent following the Confederations Cup and will not meet up with the new manager until 28 July back at Cobham ahead of the United States leg of the team's summer exertions. But the assumption can be drawn that the Englishman would be bought largely to replace the Spaniard, not play alongside him.
That partnership, if anything, would be used only as a last resort. "If we are losing we might need to change it and have two pure strikers," said Mourinho. "It is something we will work on because I would like to have this capacity to have it ready to play, independent of the players we have." The prospect of Chelsea boasting the capacity to fling on a Torres to run at tiring defenders, or even utilise Rooney from the bench on the occasions he is rested, would send a powerful message to the rest of the Premier League.
Which, of course, is why United are so reluctant to countenance his sale. Losing him to a direct rival feels psychologically flawed, a sign of weakness, even if that must be counter-balanced by the prospect of keeping a disaffected and influential ego in the ranks. This has become a political minefield, a fractious tete-a-tete between title challengers, with Rooney agitating and David Moyes back in uncomfortably familiar territory. Chelsea will watch developments with interest, but their intent has been laid bare.