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Watford worried about walking wounded

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.

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_

MANCHESTER -- Jose Mourinho says he only has "contempt" for his war of words with Antonio Conte after two weeks of trading insults with the Chelsea boss.

The Manchester United manager said he did not need to "act like a clown" on the touchline, prompting Conte to hit back by claiming Mourinho could be suffering from "senile dementia" having "forgotten his past."

In response, Mourinho referenced Conte's four-month ban for failing to report match fixing in 2012 -- a punishment that was ultimately rescinded in 2016 -- before the Italian struck back by branding Mourinho "fake" and a "small man."

Mourinho told a news conference on Friday: "I think when a person insults another, you can expect a response.

"Or you can expect contempt, silence.

"The first time he insulted me I had a response, a response that I know that touched the point where he really feels hurt.

"Then he insulted me for a second time, but now I change, and now contempt and for me, contempt means end of the story."

Mourinho was speaking after returning from a five-day trip to Dubai with the squad ahead of Monday night's Premier League clash with Stoke City at Old Trafford.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not part of the group that travelled to the UAE as he continues his recovery from a knee injury.

The 36-year-old has missed the last three games and is not expected back in training until the end of January at the earliest.

Mourinho added: "Zlatan is injured or is not totally happy with his condition.

"He fought like a tiger, like he likes to say, to be back, which he did. He was starting having minutes here and there and had a start and had 60 minutes in one game, start another one and had 45 and he was not happy with his feelings.

"He consulted other doctors, other opinions and we all make the decision to stop, treatment, and when [he's] feeling really good come back to the work.

"The date for him to be back to training with the team was around end of January, beginning of February, so let's hope his feelings are better and we have him with us as soon as possible."

Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.

LONDON -- Chelsea have pledged to assist the football authorities after allegations of racist and physical abuse against former coaches Graham Rix and Gwyn Williams, made by three former youth team players, surfaced on Friday.

A report in The Guardian revealed that Chelsea received a letter in February initiating a civil claim and detailing the allegations, which date from the 1990s and include accusations of numerous racist comments made by both men towards the young prospects, as well as claims of physical attacks by Rix.

The allegations against Rix relate to his time as Chelsea youth team coach. He is accused of persistently directing racist epithets and insults towards the black players under his authority, while it is also claimed that he punched, kicked and threw a cup of hot coffee into the face of one player who challenged him about his conduct.

Williams, a close friend of former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates who served as the club's chief scout and assistant manager during a 27-year spell at Stamford Bridge, is not accused of any physical assaults, but it is alleged that he subjected black youth players to sustained racist abuse.

The Guardian report that police concluded there was insufficient evidence to take criminal action against Rix and Williams after a seven-month investigation, but two of the players involved have been interviewed by the Football Association's safeguarding team.

"We take allegations of this nature extremely seriously," a Chelsea statement read. "We are absolutely determined to do the right thing, to fully support those affected, assist the authorities and support their investigations."

Chelsea declined to comment further on the issue when contacted by ESPN FC, but The Guardian report that they have launched their own internal enquiry and have offered in-house counselling to one of the individuals affected.

Both men denied "all and any allegations of racial or other abuse" in a statement through their lawyer, Eddie Johns.

"Our clients deny all and any allegations of racial or other abuse," the statement said. "These allegations were the subject of a thorough investigation by specialist officers of the Metropolitan Police Service. The MPS did not consider there was sufficient evidence even to report it to the Crown Prosecution Service. Our clients cooperated with that investigation.

"The allegations in the Guardian newspaper are contained, as we understand it, within correspondence sent to Chelsea Football Club. That correspondence has not been seen by our clients or by us."

"No correspondence has been sent to our clients or us by these individuals or those representing them. We will of course deal with any allegations if made directly to our clients. Our clients are cooperating fully with the FA in this matter."

Rix, 60, served six months in prison in 1999 after admitting two charges of unlawful sex with a 15-year-old and indecent assault, but he was reinstated by Chelsea on his release. He subsequently managed Portsmouth, Oxford United and Hearts.

Williams left Chelsea in 2006 to serve as technical director at Leeds United after Bates bought the club but was dismissed for gross misconduct in 2013 after being found to have emailed pornographic images of women to several colleagues.