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Man City still favourites to sign Sanchez but United are in contention

ESPN FC's Mark Ogden says Man City are prepared to abandon their pursuit of Alexis Sanchez after costs have escalated over recent weeks.
ESPN FC's Mark Donaldson and Stevie Nicol tackle the latest rumours in Transfer Talk, which include a few key names that may head to Manchester United.
Arsene Wenger says clubs can utilise interest in players to start a bidding war, but reiterates that Alexis Sanchez is still an Arsenal player.
Arsene Wenger says the future of Alexis Sanchez is still unclear amid heavy interest from Manchester City and Manchester United.

Nothing is ever quite as it seems when an unsettled Arsenal star is being offered a way out of the Emirates Stadium by both Manchester City and Manchester United, so we should never have expected Alexis Sanchez's escape route to be without twists and turns.

Will he go to Premier League leaders City or have United found a way to persuade him to choose Old Trafford?

And would Arsene Wenger rather sell him for less to Pep Guardiola than bank more for the Chilean forward, and potentially land Henrikh Mkhitaryan at the same time, by allowing long-time rival Jose Mourinho to put him in a United shirt?

What is certain is that City are no longer in a one-horse race to sign the 29-year-old and Guardiola's refusal to engage with any questions about Sanchez during his press conference on Friday hinted at growing frustration with the ongoing saga over the player's next move.

"I am focused on Liverpool versus City," Guardiola said of his team's game on Sunday, when asked for an update on City's pursuit. "If I was my players, I wouldn't want my manager talking about other things."

There was a subtle difference in tone from Mourinho, however, during his media briefing shortly afterwards at United's Carrington training ground.

Looking tanned and relaxed after a five-day training break in Dubai, Mourinho spoke about the difficulties of completing signings in January, before adding that "there are some players in the football world, if you have the chance to sign them in January, March or July, you have to try."

United's manager then went on to describe Sanchez as a "phenomenal player," before insisting he really shouldn't say too much about an Arsenal player.

Would Mourinho use such a glowing reference if he believed the player was about to sign for a rival? Or was the United manager making a public play to Sanchez by boosting his ego with such praise?

In any big transfer involving more than one interested party, there are games of bluff and counter-bluff, with the semantics of press conference comments often hidden beneath layers of caveats and intentionally misleading statements.

Where will Alexis Sanchez be playing on Feb. 1? His transfer saga continues.

But sources have told ESPN FC that City are now prepared to withdraw from the battle to sign Sanchez, having for so long believed they had a free run to the player.

United's entry into the race complicates matters for City because the Old Trafford outfit will meet Arsenal's £35 million valuation, with or without Mkhitaryan as leverage, and they will also pay the necessary agent fees.

City, meanwhile, have no intention of paying more than £20m for a player with fewer than six months remaining on his contract and they are reluctant to meet the agent's financial demands.

But do not take that as City throwing in the towel. After all, they were determined not to pay over the odds for Kyle Walker last summer but, when it came to the crunch, they stumped up to sign the defender from Tottenham.

Moreover, the transfers of Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie from Arsenal to City and United respectively, should offer a reminder that a deal is not done until it is done.

In 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson was led to believe that Nasri would join United. Conversations had taken place between the two men and Ferguson was confident he could go on holiday to the south of France with a deal for the attacking midfielder in the bag.

But City, building rapidly under Roberto Mancini, entered the race -- ironically after failing to persuade Sanchez to reject Barcelona and join them from Udinese -- and outbid United in terms of the transfer fee, player wages and agent costs.

Ferguson was furious, believing that Nasri had gone back on his word to put money before glory, but the French international ended his first season as a title winner at the Etihad Stadium, so he had the bank balance and the medal to suggest he made the right decision.

Twelve months later, Van Persie appeared to be destined for City after making it clear that he wanted to leave Arsenal. The Dutch forward checked out houses in nearby Cheshire and Mancini was confident that he would go into the new season with a strike pairing of Van Persie and Sergio Aguero.

But Ferguson and United quietly made their move and persuaded Van Persie that his future lay at Old Trafford, with the player famously claiming: "I always listen to the little boy inside me and that boy was screaming for Man United." A league title followed in his first season.

Both Nasri and Van Persie ended up at the Manchester club they were least expected to join when their respective transfer sagas began, so perhaps Sanchez will follow suit. United still have obstacles to overcome, however, if they are to pull of the transfer coup of the season.

The player has made it known that his preference is to play for Guardiola again, following one season under the manager at Barcelona, while City also offer Sanchez a more immediate chance of winning the trophies for which he believes Arsenal are unable to compete.

Yet he would be confident of playing every week at United, while life on the other side of Manchester could see him share attacking duties with Aguero and Gabriel Jesus.

City should still be regarded as favourites to sign Sanchez, because of Guardiola and their current form and prospects, but United have the money and the ambition to beat them to it.

Just like with Nasri and Van Persie, United and City supporters should be prepared to expect the unexpected.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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