Aston Villa might be in pole position to sign Milan Baros but the Czech Republic international striker joined the Liverpool squad for the trip to Bulgaria yesterday and could yet remain with the Merseyside club this season.
Baros is understood to have agreed terms with Villa, for a salary of about £1.5 million, but he will not be allowed to leave Anfield for less than £7 million.
If Baros plays for Liverpool against CSKA Sofia in the Uefa Champions League tomorrow night, that would effectively rule Olympique Lyon out of the equation, leaving Villa free to pursue the player.
The problem for Villa is that their offer of £6 million has been rejected. Rafael BenItez, the Liverpool manager, says he will happily keep hold of Baros unless an offer of £7 million is forthcoming. Villa will not increase their offer.
Lyon, now managed by G>rard Houllier, the former Liverpool manager, were linked with Baros in the summer and have again contacted the European champions to re-affirm their interest in the striker.
BenItez has been reluctant to play Baros in European ties because the player would become ineligible for any Uefa competition this season and thus reduce his transfer value. Villa, however, are not competing in Europe.
BenItez said: "Milan is our player, he will be travelling with the squad to Bulgaria. There are lots of rumours but so far the bids have not been good enough, so he is still our player."
Lyon have clearly not reached BenItez's valuation with their enquiry, so BenItez will play a game of brinkmanship and even threaten to cup-tie the striker, something that will leave Lyon living on their nerves because they have already qualified for the Champions League group stages.
With Lyon clearly looking to earmark some of the money they are likely to get from their proposed deal to sell Michael Essien to Premiership champions Chelsea, BenItez wants to turn the screw on the French club by leaving them unsure whether the player they want will become cup-tied this week.
It is highly unlikely that BenItez will risk losing cash by playing Baros, but he said: "We signed Fernando Morientes last season knowing he could not play for us in the Champions League. With so many matches to play, you can use some players in one competition and others in another."
Baros has also been the subject of interest from Monaco, West Ham United and Everton, but BenItez is insisting on a £7 million transfer fee and so far only Villa have come close to that.
Steve Stride, the club's operations director, is working around the clock to ensure that Villa have a strong squad to begin the season but time is running out. The transfer window closes on August 31 and Villa, having sold Darius Vassell to Manchester City for £2 million, are still a striker short.
Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman, has set his sights on returning to his post in a fortnight after undergoing triple heart bypass surgery two months ago, at the age of 81.
Ellis had the operation in early June and predictions that he would be back at work around the start of the new Premiership campaign have proved to be correct.
"I am feeling much better now and I am looking forward to getting back," Ellis said. "My voice is a little weak but, apart from that, everything is fine. I expect to be back at the office in two weeks."
O'Leary is banking on Olof Mellberg, the Villa captain, to produce the form that will see the team rise to expectations.
Mellberg endured an erratic time last season and ended the campaign with a knee injury, but O'Leary has been impressed with the defender's form in pre-season.
"I know he is a real quality player," O'Leary said. "I've got a really good skipper here and we are looking for him to reach some really high standards again - the standards he set in my first season.
"If Olof has a good season, then Villa will have a good season.
"That's what happened in my first season when, for me, Olof was as good as any centre-back in the country.
"Throughout that season, he was also our most consistent player.
"I've got players here that I know, if they perform, can be as good as anybody. One is the captain and another one is Juan Pablo Angel.
"If he performs like he did in the first season, Villa will do well. We need those players to play well."