Top European clubs circle as Messi calls time at Barcelona

AFP , Wednesday 26 Aug 2020

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - FC Barcelona v Alaves - Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain - August 18, 2018 Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their third goal REUTERS

Lionel Messi's bombshell request to leave Barcelona is expected to spark a legal battle over a multi-million-dollar buy-out clause but also raises the question of which club could afford him in the heat of the coronavirus pandemic.

Messi's priority has always been to be part of a "winning project" at Camp Nou, and newly-appointed sporting director Ramon Planes on Wednesday hailed the Argentinian a "winner" the Catalan club was working hard to keep.

As it stands, Messi is Barca's record scorer and has been part of a team that has amassed four Champions League titles, 10 La Liga titles and six Copa del Rey trophies.

The 33-year-old's latest season, however, was not only devoid of trophies (for the first time since 2008), it was also defined by chaos and ended in humiliation with a 8-2 Champions League quarter-final defeat by eventual champions Bayern Munich. 

Messi, a six-time Ballon d'Or winner, has not asked for a transfer to put his feet up for the final years of his career. This is a considered move aimed at bolstering his successes, and in one competition in particular.

Champions League obsession

The Champions League has become his obsession, which puts all of Europe's super-clubs in contention and eliminates the less intensive, or more romantic, options, at least for now. 

With a reported weekly salary of nearly one million euros, those able both to afford Messi, and convince him, may only be Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, with Inter Milan a third, more distant option.

City would appear favourites but the club have always trodden carefully around the prospect of Messi. Their sporting staff, including coach Pep Guardiola, sporting director Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano, all have connections with Barcelona they are keen to respect. 

For PSG, whose frustration in Europe has been comparable to City's, even if they broke new ground by reaching last weekend's final, Messi would also represent a seismic addition to the Qatari project.

A Neymar-Messi-Kylian Mbappe front three would not be a difficult sell.

Staying at Barcelona remains a possibility, however, particularly if under-pressure president Josep Maria Bartomeu decides to resign.

But despite calls from fans and rival candidates, there is no suggestion yet that Bartomeu is considering his position.

New winning cycle

Bartomeu's new sporting director Planes, named in place of Eric Abidal a day after Quique Setien was sacked as manager following the Bayern defeat, said on Wednesday that Messi's want-away demand was "a very important story".

"But our idea at the club is still to build a new winning cycle around the best player in the world. We are not contemplating any kind of departure because what we want is for Messi to stay."

Planes added: "You have to have enormous respect for what Messi is and for his history.

"I think the future is positive. I am an optimist. We need experienced players, like Leo Messi... We are putting every effort into ensuring that the relationship between Barca and Messi will continue. We are working internally to convince Leo."

Planes stressed that there was "not an argument between Messi and Barca -- neither deserves it".

"We are working to make Barca a winner. There is no division within the club over Leo. Anyone who knows football wants him to stay here to win again. He's a winner."

Drastic changes

Barcelona are understood to believe Messi's release clause expired in June, and that he remains under contract until the end of the 2021 season.

"In principle, this clause expired on June 10, but the unusual nature of this season disrupted by the coronavirus opened the way for Messi to ask to be released from his contract now," wrote Marca newspaper.

"It's the first step towards opening negotiations over his departure, on the basis of which his release clause amounts to 700 million euros ($828 million)."

Messi joined Barcelona's youth academy at the age of 13 and made his debut in 2004 as a 17-year-old, before going on to score a club-record 634 goals.

According to Spanish media, Messi met with new manager Ronald Koeman last week and told the Dutchman he currently saw himself "more out than in" at the club.

Koeman has vowed to "fight to put Barca back on top" and said at his unveiling he was hopeful Messi would remain at the club for several more years.

The Lisbon loss to Bayern, Barca's heaviest in Europe, exposed an ageing team that Messi repeatedly had said was simply not good enough as his relations with the club hierarchy grew increasingly strained.

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