Lionel Messi, Manchester City and the the biggest transfer of all-time

Even for a manager with Pep Guardiola’s pulling power, the idea of signing Lionel Messi seemed improbable, fanciful even, as recently as February.

Asked about the Argentine following his criticism of Barcelona sporting director Eric Abidal, Guardiola insisted that Messi will finish his career at the Camp Nou and perhaps even more intriguingly, that he wanted him to do so.

‘He is a player from Barcelona and he will stay there, that’s my wish for him to stay there,’ said Guardiola. ‘I’m not going to talk about players playing for other clubs. I think he will finish his career there, that’s my wish.’

How quickly things have changed. Though there’s been suggestions over the last 18 months that not all was well in Messi’s camp, his transfer request on Monday stunned Barcelona. But it was not just the Catalans who were dumbfounded; Guardiola was just as shocked when the Argentine called him earlier this month to sound out a move to the Etihad.

The pair spoke for close to three hours and about more than just football, though Messi’s future was clearly the main topic of conversation. Guardiola expressed his desire to work with the Argentine again and Messi subsequently informed Barcelona of his intention to leave the club.

A departure from Barcelona has always appeared extremely unlikely but a deal of this magnitude is years in the making and City have laid the groundwork ever since the Abu Dhabi United Group completed their takeover of the club in 2008. While City felt they had been used as pawns in a game by Messi’s representatives in the past to extract a bigger contract from Barcelona, there is for the first time a genuine belief at the Etihad that the Argentine is interested in joining the club and that his motivations are football-related.

City are distancing themselves from a move for the Argentine, fearful that they could get their fingers burnt again. The club have learned from mistakes of the past in how to deal with transfers of this size and they’ve come a long way since former CEO Garry Cook boasted about a deal for AC Milan’s Kaka, only for the Brazilian to u-turn on a move to the north-west.

But City are serious about signing Messi, with sources telling Metro.co.uk that a deal of this size is in ‘complete isolation’ to the club’s transfer policy. While nobody could have predicted the Argentine arriving this summer, the club have always had the blocks in place for such a move and they are cautiously optimistic that a deal can be pulled off, even if the odds appear to be stacked against them, despite the apparent will of the player.

Messi is believed to be on a weekly salary of around £970,000-a-week at the Camp Nou and there remains considerable debate between his camp and the club whether a clause in his deal, which permits him to walk away on a free this summer, remains valid. Barcelona insist that it has expired, as Messi’s representatives failed to inform the club of his desire to leave 20 days before the end of the campaign. But Messi’s team argue the season’s extension because of the global pandemic means the clause should be prolonged, too.

The politics of the deal remain a sizeable stumbling block and City are wary not to get involved in a game of chess between the two parties, preferring to stay out of it entirely. Relations between the two sides are already strained as it is, with Barcelona still reeling from the manner in which City poached sporting director Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano in recent years. City understand the delicacy of the situation and know that any aggression from their side could be painted in Barcelona’s favour in the Spanish press, when in truth it is the Catalans that are to blame for Messi’s desire to leave.

Instead, City will focus on the ‘controllables’. Before any move can be negotiated for Messi, the club must first crunch the numbers and prove that they can finance a deal in a compliant manner. Crucially, they believe they can.

David Silva’s departure this summer frees up a significant portion of the wage bill as the Spaniard earned around £220,000-a-week at the Etihad, making him one of the highest earners at the club. Added to that is the fact that City failed to replace Vincent Kompany 12 months ago, with the Belgian believed to be on a basic salary of around £250,000-a-week.

Though Ferran Torres and Nathan Ake have arrived so far this summer, neither are on high wages and their transfer fees were covered by Leroy Sane’s £55m departure to Bayern Munich. With Ake seen as an overdue arrival following Kompany’s departure and Torres as Sane’s replacement, City feel they are yet to even tap into this summer’s budget.

A deal of this nature is far from straightforward and City have explored various different avenues to making it happen. As reported by ESPN, City have looked into a deal that would see Messi join partner club NYCFC in MLS in three years time. Such an agreement would satisfy Messi’s desire to compete for a a fifth Champions League title until his 36th birthday, while a plan to retire in America would be in place.

Though City would clearly prefer Messi to win a case against the club in order to sign him on a free transfer, they are willing to put up a significant fee should it come to it. Barcelona insist they will not listen to offers for the Argentine and that any departure will only arise by a club activating a £630m release clause in Messi’s contract. Privately though, there is a sense in some quarters at the Camp Nou that a reasonable asking price for Messi would afford the club a chance to reinvest in other neglected areas of the squad, while removing his salary off the books would aid the club’s post-pandemic recovery.

One option being looked at by City is the inclusion of a number of players in the deal. Barcelona have shown interest in Gabriel Jesus in the past, viewing him as a long-term replacement for Luis Suarez. City could feasibly fetch around £75m for the Brazilian on the open market and he would be open to a move to Spain in the search of more playing time. Eric Garcia informed the club at the end of the Premier League season that he will not renew his deal at the Etihad as he wanted to rejoin Barcelona and City would either be willing to include him in a deal or to offer a reduction on their asking price as a stand-alone transfer.

Whether Barcelona would be interested in such a deal remains to be seen but City cannot control the Catalans’ reaction. What they can do is prepare to capitalise on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sign the greatest player in history and to reunite him with the manager that helped him become exactly that.

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