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Arsenal ahead of Man City in the race to sign Declan Rice

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND (AP) – In an offseason when Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema have already made moves, Declan Rice is turning into one of the biggest stories of the transfer window.

Arsenal appears to be closing in on a deal worth up to a reported GBP105 million (USD133 million) for the England international, who has been linked with many of Europe’s biggest clubs.

Manchester City, which has also targeted the West Ham midfielder, is not prepared to match that figure, according to a person with knowledge of the Premier League champion’s transfer plans.

Declan Rice. PHOTO: AP

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to comment publicly.

That looks to have left the path clear for Arsenal to make what could be one of the most pivotal signings in English football’s top division.

After going head-to-head in last season’s title race, City and Arsenal have been locked in a battle for Rice’s signature since the transfer window opened. Arsenal missed out on the title after leading the standings for most of the season. It might have been a different story if Rice had been in the heart of its midfield.

That is likely what Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta is banking on after making him a leading target this year.

Ultimately, Arsenal ran out of steam in the title race, winning only three of its last nine games.

The 24-year-old Rice has established himself as a leader on the field, with the energy to drive his team forward and the combativeness to dominate matches. He is set to leave West Ham after leading it to success in the Europa Conference League, the club’s first major trophy in more than 40 years.

Rice is the type of player with the potential to close the gap between Arsenal and City, which won a treble of trophies, including the Premier League title, Champions League and FA Cup.

A move to City would likely push the team even further ahead of its rivals with the addition of another top player, as has been the case in recent years with the signings of Jack Grealish and Erling Haaland.

Arsenal’s hierarchy is likely aware of that and is backing a major transfer drive by Arteta after he led the club back into the Champions League for the first time since the 2016-17 season.

Kai Havertz completed his move across London from Chelsea to Arsenal on Wednesday in a deal worth a reported GBP65 million (USD82 million).

Rice, a former Chelsea academy player, has also been linked with a return to Stamford Bridge, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

It is possible he could still join City, if the Manchester club comes up with more favourable payment terms to Arsenal. West Ham reportedly is not happy with the length of time Arsenal has proposed to pay off the fee.

City’s decision not to be drawn into an auction isn’t a surprise. Despite being one of the world’s richest clubs, thanks to the backing of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, it has repeatedly refused to go beyond its own valuation of a target.

That was the case with Virgil van Dijk, Harry Maguire and Kalidou Koulibaly in previous transfer windows. But the move for Rice points to City manager Pep Guardiola’s desire to strengthen the midfield following the departure of Ilkay Gundogan to Barcelona.

While midfielder Mateo Kovacic signed with City from Chelsea on Tuesday for GBP25 million (USD31.6 million), doubts remain about the future of Bernardo Silva.