Leo Messi could be lured to Manchester City by fish and chips
When Messi arrives in Manchester this week he will renew an old friendship with Pablo Zabaleta and could be persuaded to ply his talents in the Premier League.
There is a chippie in a suburb of Manchester that might, one day, have a very special customer if Pablo Zabaleta gets his way: one Lionel Messi.
“Whether he would come to Manchester City, we will see,” Zabaleta says, with a laugh, as he reflects on his friend and fellow Argentine. “I would like to show him around. Maybe I could take him out to Didsbury and we could have some fish and chips. I think he would like that.”
Messi for City? It is no longer just tomorrow’s chip paper. After all, City have risen to aspire for that calibre of player: the club has the financial power, and are an increasingly attractive draw as one of the most competitive teams in Europe.
The club’s Catalan executives may still have the inclination to see whether Messi, still just 26, really is unsettled at Barcelona.
Understandably Zabaleta shies away from suggesting that City will bid – or that Messi would want to join – but there is the bold assertion that the Premier League may now be a bigger pull than La Liga for the world’s leading players.
“You always expect the best players to be in the Premier League,” Zabaleta argues. “Because it means they will make this league even better and I think every single player in the world always wants to come to the Premier League. So we’ll see.”
Indeed Zabaleta recalls the day when Messi did inquire about City, soon after the takeover by the Abu Dhabi owners in 2008.
“When I just moved here, after three or four months I came back to Barcelona because we had a couple of days off,” says Zabaleta, who had signed from Espanyol, the second club in the Catalan capital. “I went to Messi’s house and everybody was talking about the new owners, the big money. But that’s it.”
Messi will be in Manchester on Monday, ahead of Barcelona’s mouth-watering Champions League last-16 tie against City, and Zabaleta is relishing the chance to renew acquaintances with a man he has known since their time together in Argentina’s youth teams.
“I remember when I met him with the Under-20s and I was captain,” he says. “I just tried to bring him into the team and meet the players as nobody knew him.
"We were all playing in Argentina and he went to Barcelona when he was 11 and we didn’t know him at all. When the manager came to us and said he would bring an Argentinian player who is playing in the academy in Barcelona we didn’t expect him to be that good.
"The first time we saw him train [at the World Championships in 2005] ... well, he was amazing.”
Argentina’s team, which also included a certain Sergio Agüero, won that competition, with Zabaleta lifting the trophy and Messi claiming the Golden Ball as the best player and Golden Shoe as top scorer.
“I signed for Espanyol after that so we were living in the same city,” Zabaleta recalls. “We spent three years as friends, going out. We were younger and single, so it was a good time!”
There are – or were – parallels between Espanyol and City.
“It was similar to Manchester, with City and United. But you can’t say the same now when you talk about Manchester. Manchester City is now a different club with different players with different targets. Now City has a bigger reputation, not just in England but around the world with the big players. Obviously now the targets are different. We try to win as many trophies as we can every season.”
The Champions League is a realistic goal among those but, to do that, City – and Zabaleta – must stop Messi.
“When you play against a player like this you can have a great game for 90 minutes and in one minute you make a mistake and then you can concede to him,” the 29-year-old says.
“The quality of the Barcelona players, especially up front, is fantastic – Pedro, Alexis Sánchez, Neymar, Messi – all of them are really quick, they are very good finishers and obviously you can’t make mistakes against those players, you have to be concentrated for 95 minutes and try to stop them in different ways.”
Messi has endured a more difficult campaign, largely due to injury, and it was his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo who won Fifa’s Ballon d’Or last month. But for all that has happened since their first meeting as children, Zabaleta expects to meet up with the same person he first encountered, back in Holland, almost nine years ago.
“He is a great guy,” Zabaleta says. “I’m very happy to see him now with his family and kids. Sometimes you have the opportunity to see someone years ago when he was nobody, then he wins everything and is still the same person.
"This is something great. I think Leo never changed and is still the same boy he was when he was 17 before his success with Barcelona. That is something you really appreciate.”
But would he appreciate a fish supper? Zabaleta may no longer live in Didsbury, having moved out of his flat to a larger residence, but the self-styled Mancunian does at least have form.
The last time he used the technique in an attempt to entice an Argentine to City, Agüero joined from Atlético Madrid.