Barcelona fans protest outside the club's Camp Nou stadium on Wednesday following the news that captain Lionel Messi has submitted a transfer request. REUTERS
Potential reunion with Pep could sway want-away Barcelona star as suitors circle
Manchester City has emerged as the hot favorite to land Lionel Messi following the Barcelona superstar's bombshell transfer request this week.
Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi on Tuesday informed Barcelona of his desire to leave the club, with some reports suggesting the Argentine already has his heart set on a reunion with City coach Pep Guardiola.
However, both City and Messi face huge obstacles to conclude a potential deal, with the road ahead muddied by the dispute over the player's free-agent status.
Messi's contract contains a clause that allows him to leave at the end of every season, providing he notifies Barca in the first 10 days of June. Messi contends that time-frame does not apply this year because of the late finish to the season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
If Messi loses that argument, Abu Dhabi-owned City would have to pay the player's 700-million-euro ($828 million) release clause to secure his services.
The Daily Mail reported that City could still sign the 33-year-old while he is in dispute with Barcelona but would risk being hit with sanctions and the transfer fee at a later date if FIFA ruled in the Spanish club's favor.
However, one leading sports lawyer told Sky Sports that the player risks being immediately banned if he leaves Barcelona without resolving the contractual dispute.
"There are legal arguments on both sides but in my experience, in 95 percent of these types of cases, you find a commercial solution," said Nick De Marco.
"The last thing that Barcelona wants is a player who's not fully committed and drawing those wages."
Messi's wages are currently 71 million euros per year, before bonuses are added. Along with City, Paris Saint-Germain and Inter Milan look to have the deepest pockets to absorb such a wage bill.
PSG already pays Neymar 36 million euros and Kylian Mbappe 21.8 million euros annually, however the Qatari-backed club appears to have no limits when it comes to the transfer market.
The chance to link up again with ex-Barca teammate Neymar in an intimidating attacking triumvirate along with Mbappe could also be attractive to Messi.
Chinese-owned Inter is also keenly monitoring the situation, with La Gazzetta Dello Sport reporting earlier this month that the rebuilding Serie A giant is willing to pay Messi a 67-million-euro salary in a four-year-deal.
Messi's father is believed to own a home in Milan, further fueling speculation his son could be willing to move to the San Siro.
Manchester City, however, holds the ace in the pack when it comes to Messi-head coach Guardiola.
Messi regards Guardiola's four-year Barca reign as his happiest time as a Barca player, with the pair counting a 2008-09 treble among their silverware haul from that period.
When Guardiola announced he was leaving Barcelona in 2012, Messi wrote on social media:" Because of how emotional I feel I prefer not to be at the news conference. Above all, because I know they will look for the sad faces of the players and I do not want to show mine."
Back in February, Guardiola dismissed talk of a potential City switch for Messi, saying: "He is a player from Barcelona and he will stay there, that's my wish for him."
However, this week's developments and the general chaos ensuing at Barca have likely changed the Spaniard's mind.
Even before the Messi news, pressure had been growing on Barca president Jose Maria Bartomeu following the club's first trophy-less season since 2007-08.
A handful of angry Barca fans calling for the resignation of Bartomeu on Wednesday broke into Camp Nou for a few minutes before being cleared out by police.
Club directors who oppose Bartomeu earlier had presented a motion demanding he resigns, in the hope that it could help Messi change his mind.
"This board of directors should have resigned a long time ago. Bad results, bad management. They are destroying the club," Barcelona fan Oriol Aznar said.
On Wednesday, Bartomeu left it to his new sporting director, Roman Planes, to face media.
"We are putting every effort into ensuring that the relationship between Barca and Messi will continue. We are working internally to convince Leo (to stay)," Planes said at an event to unveil new signing Francisco Trincao.
According to Spanish media, Messi met with new head coach Ronald Koeman last week and told the Dutchman he saw himself "more out than in" at the club.
Barcelona players are expected to report to the club on Sunday to undergo coronavirus testing, with training resuming on Monday in preparation for the new Spanish season, which kick offs on Sept 12.
AFP and AP contributed to this story.