Pep Guardiola’s decision to sign a contract extension at Manchester City last week was a big deal for the club in more ways than one: It ensures that the most celebrated coach in football will remain at the Etihad until 2023, but perhaps more significantly, it also puts the club firmly in pole position to sign Lionel Messi from Barcelona.
In just under six weeks’ time, Messi can talk to non-Spanish clubs about a free transfer from Camp Nou at the end of this season. If he chooses to do so, from Jan. 1 he can negotiate a move to a new team in time for the 2021-22 season, and Barcelona will be powerless to stop him.
Publicly, City played it cool, but privately, sources told ESPN that Guardiola and the club’s Abu Dhabi owners were prepared to do whatever it took to sign Messi. There was also an acceptance within the Etihad that the timing of Messi’s transfer request in the summer would make it less likely to be successful, thanks to the prospect of a legal battle over a disputed €700m escape clause in the player’s contract. And that is how it played out. Reluctant to engage in a lengthy fight over the wording of the clause, Messi backtracked and opted to stay. But if Barcelona held the upper hand in August and September, the control and power now lies with Messi because of the dwindling status of his contract. City know that the ball will be in their court when January arrives.
Sources have told ESPN that City are aware that a move to the Etihad appeals to Messi 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 for the club. Had Guardiola opted to walk away at the end of this season, City’s prospects of signing Messi would have been severely compromised. But by securing Guardiola for the next two and a half years, City have also reinforced their chances of signing Messi.