Monday 19 March 2018

Could Leo Messi follow Pep Guardiola and join the Man City revolution?

Leo Messi and Pep Guardiola during their time together at Barcelona
Leo Messi and Pep Guardiola during their time together at Barcelona

Jason Burt

Having hired, by common consensus, the best manager in the world in Pep Guardiola Manchester City are now planning an expensive overhaul of their squad to affirm their ambition to become a global superpower - and that could mean the addition of a global super-star.

A play for Lionel Messi is not impossible.

City confirmed on Monday, at the prompting of the now outgoing manager Manuel Pellegrini, that Guardiola is on his way to the hugely-ambitious club having agreed a three-year contract which will pay him at least £15m-a-year. That is a £45m deal which will comfortably make Guardiola the highest-paid manager in the Premier League.

It has long been maintained in football circles that City had landed Guardiola who, before Christmas, announced he would be leaving Bayern Munich at the end of this season when his contract expires. City admitted their interest but disputed a deal has been in place up until now. However Pellegrini said he knew “a month ago” that he was losing his job to Guardiola and wanted to end the speculation.

There were suggestions that City had fought off late bids from both Manchester United and Chelsea for Guardiola but those claims were summarily dismissed by senior sources at both of those clubs. They insisted that they knew the Spaniard was going to City – United briefed as such in early December - and that a deal was agreed several months ago.

Whatever the timetable there was an interesting point made in the press release issued by City which revealed that the negotiations to hire Guardiola had been “a recommencement of discussions that were curtailed in 2012”. Including that detail was to show that Pellegrini always knew he was second-choice to Guardiola and would make way if he became available.

Roberto Mancini was the City manager at the time, having led the club to their first league title in 43 years in 2011-12, with Guardiola having signalled his intent to leave Barcelona. However the 45-year-old took a year’s sabbatical before joining Bayern in 2013 with City then turning to Pellegrini when they sacked Mancini who had limped on for one more season.

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It was already clear that the City hierarchy have long-targeted Guardiola and hoped that the relationship he enjoyed with the former Barcelona executives of director of football Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano would be a significant factor in wooing him – which it was.

Begiristain, in particular, has a long-standing friendship with Guardiola and has sold to him the idea of moving City to the next level and creating a new super-power in football, with huge financial resources, but also, crucially, with an environment which will give him time and support in which to work. At United he would be restoring former glory at a club with a huge amount of work to do; at Chelsea there is always volatility – while there is no vacancy at Arsenal.

At the same time if the Spanish pair had allowed Guardiola to be signed up by another Premier League club – Chelsea’s interest has been particularly long-standing while Sir Alex Ferguson met the coach in New York during his sabbatical and before David Moyes was appointed United manager – it would have been bad news for them.

Guardiola has made no secret of the fact that he wants to work in the Premier League. Having enjoyed such incredible success in Spain and Germany he sees England as the third of the big three European leagues he wants to conquer before moving into international management or, possibly, retiring early.

The style of football, the “holistic’ approach and the environment at City – as well as the money – are a huge attraction for Guardiola who will be supported with substantial transfer funds. City will consider whether Messi can be extracted from Barcelona, what Neymar’s intentions also are while there are obvious targets at Bayern in Thiago Alcantara and David Alaba and Everton’s John Stones who is exactly the kind of ball-playing central defender Guardiola will want.

City held talks last summer with Paul Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola and walked away from a bid because it was financially prohibitive but a move could be revived for the Juventus midfielder. Certainly City will feel that Guardiola’s arrival makes them a more attractive proposition to the very highest tier of player. City are already on the look-out for more wide players despite already having signed Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne. New full-backs can also be expected.

Pellegrini confirmed during his pre-match press conference before Tuesday’s league match away to Sunderland that this would be his last season at City. He signed a one-year contract extension last summer - although that did not convince anyone who was informed that he would definitely stay - but will leave on June 30.

This prompted a press release from City confirming the worst-kept secret in football for the past two months (at least) and claiming that “in recent weeks it has commenced and finalized contractual negotiations with Pep Guardiola to become MCF Head Coach for the 2016/17 EPL season onwards”.

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The statement added: “Out of respect for Manuel Pellegrini and the players, the club wishes to make its decision public to remove the unnecessary burden of speculation. Manuel, who is fully supportive of the decision to make this communication, is entirely focused on achieving his targets for the season ahead and retains the respect and commitment of all involved with the leadership of the club.”

City maintain that making the announcement now will have a galvanizing effect on a squad which is fighting on all fronts – the league, last 16 of the Champions League and FA Cup and into the League Cup Final. Winning all four – or a number of those trophies – and then leaving would be an extraordinary state of affairs for Pellegrini. But then Jupp Heynckes won the treble at Bayern before being replaced by Guardiola.

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