Chelsea will assess the Brazil midfielder Paulinho first-hand when he plays for Corinthians in their Fifa Club World Cup semi-final against Al Ahly on Wednesdayafter seeing Oriol Romeu ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
Paulinho was a key member of the Corinthians side that claimed the Brazilian league title in 2011 and the Copa Libertadores for the first time last season, earning international recognition with the Selecao en route. The 24-year-old has previously played in Europe, with FC Vilnius in Lithuania and the Polish club Lodzki, with his recent performances having attracted scouts from the likes of Internazionale, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.
Inter, who had made concerted efforts to secure the player last summer, were under the impression a buyout clause in the Brazilian's contract drops his valuation after the tournament in Japan to around £12m. Yet, while Paulinho himself has said he would be willing to remain at Corinthians for another season, there will be fierce competition for his signature with the European champions expected to enter the fray.
Chelsea have been monitoring his progress regularly, having come close to bidding for his services last summer, and could yet confront him in Sunday's Club World Cup final in Yokohama if they and Corinthians progress through their semi-final fixtures. The London club will be represented at the Brazilians' game in Toyota City on Wednesday and will check on the player in the flesh, with thoughts having already turned to strengthening the squad during next month's transfer window.
While the manager Rafael Benítez is only contracted until the summer, he has spoken to the technical director Michael Emenalo and the board about their plans in January, with the European champions seeking to add further depth to their squad. There has been interest in Newcastle's Cheik Tioté in the past with Romeu's loss representing a blow given numbers are relatively short in central midfield, with the Spaniard having undergone surgery on the knee he twisted during Saturday's Premier League victory at Sunderland.
The 21-year-old, who has made 33 first-team appearances since signing from Barcelona in the summer of 2011, underwent an operation on Monday to reconstruct the anterior cruciate ligament and repair the medial meniscus in the joint. His rehabilitation will extend to six months, with Benítez having already identified the need for a ball-winning midfielder to add to his options despite being barely three weeks into the job.
The Spaniard has used the attack-minded Oscar more sparingly in recent matches as he has sought a more natural blend of attack and defence in his lineup. "You need to know the players and find the balance," said Benítez. "If you have too many players with quality, these players [Eden Hazard, Oscar, Juan Mata, Victor Moses] we were talking about, all dynamic, but you cannot regain the ball then you don't have that balance.
"To keep possession you have to regain the ball and keep the ball. If you give the ball away you have to regain it. And when you have new, young players coming through, some playing in a different league, they need more time to adapt."
That search for balance will continue in Japan, the team at least bolstered by two recent victories and the return of Frank Lampard to full fitness, with this tournament of particular emotional significance for the stand-in manager. Benítez had taken his Liverpool side to Yokohama for the Club World Cup back in 2005 as European champions only to lose his father, Francisco, on the eve of the semi-final victory against Deportivo Saprissa.
"My father had been very, very ill," said Benítez, who had visited his family in Madrid ahead of the competition. "In Spain the tradition is that the funeral is held the day after you die – in England it can be a week later – so I couldn't get back in time. Those are bad memories, obviously, because it was a bad time for me, but we knew that my father was ill. It was just a question of when it happened. But it was a bad time for me, a bad time."
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image: © Jason Bagley