Pep Guardiola’s decision to sign a contract extension in Manchester City last week was a big deal for the club in several ways: it ensures that the most famous football coach will stay with Etihad through 2023, but perhaps more importantly, it will bring the club solidly in pole position to sign Lionel Messi from Barcelona.
In just under six weeks, Messi can talk to non-Spanish clubs about a free transfer from Camp Nou at the end of this season. If he chooses, he will be able to negotiate a move to a new team from January 1 in time for the 2021/22 season and Barcelona will not be able to stop him.
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The Argentine captain gave up attempting to leave Barca this summer after a two-week saga that opened up the real prospect of the 33-year-old’s game for another club for the first time. While he ultimately chose to stay, it always felt like a temporary truce. And during the Messi-Barca battle, City waited in the wings ready to make the deal to sign arguably the greatest player the world has ever seen.
City played cool in public, but privately sources told ESPN that Guardiola and the club’s owners in Abu Dhabi were ready to do anything to get Messi signed. Within Etihad, it was also accepted that the timing of Messi’s transfer request in the summer would be less likely due to the prospect of litigation over a controversial € 700m escape clause in the player’s contract. And so it went. Reluctant to engage in a long argument over the wording of the clause, Messi pulled back and decided to stay. But if Barcelona had the upper hand in August and September, control and power are now with Messi as his contract status is dwindling. The city knows the ball will be in its place in January.
Sources have told ESPN that City are aware that a move to Etihad Messi appeals and that Guardiola’s presence as manager – under whose leadership Messi won two Champions Leagues in 2009 and 2011 – is a crucial element in his readiness to play. Had Guardiola chosen to leave at the end of this season, City’s prospects of signing Messi would have been severely damaged. However, by securing Guardiola for the next two and a half years, City has also increased the chances of signing Messi.
Guardiola gave mixed messages on Friday in response to questions about Messi, initially suggesting he should stay at Barcelona before leaving the door open for a move for the player
“As a Barcelona fan, I want Leo to end there,” said Guardiola. “But his contract ends this year and I don’t know what’s going to happen on his mind. Right now he’s a Barcelona player and the transfer market is in June and July. We have incredible games and goals and things that we would like to have . ” to reach. That’s the only thing we have on our mind. I can’t say the rest. “
In a presidential election in Barcelona slated for late January, hopes remain within the club that anyone who replaces the outgoing Josep Maria Bartomeu – whose strained relationship with Messi was a central factor in the player’s dissatisfaction – him convince to stay at Camp Nou for the rest of his career.
By then, however, it might be too late as the odds against Barcelona are starting to stack up. Barca made a sad start to the La Liga season under coach Ronald Koeman. Three defeats in eight games left the team in 12th place – 12 points behind early leaders Real Sociedad. Messi looked like an abandoned figure at times, scoring just six goals in 11 games in all competitions so far. Decent numbers for most players but below average numbers for the six-time Ballon d’Or winner. Koeman even banned Messi from his squad for this week’s Champions League trip to Dinamo Kiev to give his talisman a break. The perks of a new contract in Barcelona seem pretty slim for Messi and the prospect of being revived by moving to another location looks more attractive from week to week.
City got off to a bad start to their Premier League season this season, eight points behind leaders Tottenham Hotspur in 13th place despite playing one game less than Jose Mourinho’s side. But despite the city’s battle for form, they have the resources and ambition to rebuild under Guardiola, and Messi’s desperation to win another Champions League and the city’s determination to win it for the first time could be a winning combination his.
With Messi earning a base salary of around € 78m a year without endorsements in Barcelona, according to ForbesSome might argue that City would be wise to spend their money elsewhere. For example, a year of Messi’s wages and image rights would go a long way towards funding a move for Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland as a long-term replacement for Sergio Aguero. But to sign Messi would mean more than he could contribute on the pitch. From a commercial perspective, this would further increase City’s earning power off-field and take it to a higher level in terms of attractiveness to potential sponsors and fans around the world.
Since failing to sign AC Milan’s Kaka in 2009, City have been pursuing a groundbreaking superstar to become the face of their team. They also stayed behind trying to sign Wayne Rooney, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, but Messi would surpass them all and Guardiola’s new deal only increases their chances of getting him signed within the next six months.