If Lionel Messi’s mind is made up to leave Barcelona, the question turns to where he goes next.
His priority has always been to be part of a “winning project” at Camp Nou but his latest season was not only devoid of trophies, it was defined by chaos and ended in humiliation.
Messi 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.
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.
A fairytale return to Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina, a project-build in the MLS or even a challenge at an aspiring European team in the mould of Diego Maradona’s time at Napoli, will all become more likely once Messi is out of Barcelona.
But that is not likely to be his next step. Instead, Messi wants titles and a club he believes in again.
There will be no shortage of clubs pining for arguably the greatest player of all time but once they have done the sums, particularly in the heat of the coronavirus crisis, only a few will be able to make the numbers work.
On the back of its Champions League triumph, Bayern Munich is the pre-eminent force in Europe but it is unlikely to be able to afford Messi, aged 33, and with a base salary of around €60 million per year.
The same goes for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, as well as Juventus, which remains restricted by the enormous outlay needed to sign Cristiano Ronaldo two years ago.
Madrid, meanwhile, would love nothing more than to prize Messi from its rival — and it has tried before — but even if Messi wants to leave Barca, he is not out to burn his reputation and legacy.
Wealthy left standing
Only the wealthiest are left standing but would the history of Manchester United or the upward momentum of Frank Lampard’s Chelsea be enough to persuade Messi?
Those able both to afford Messi, and convince him, may only be Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, with Inter Milan a third option.
City would appear favourites but the club has always trodden carefully around the prospect of Messi.
Messi could propel City in the Champions League and launch its brand, so important to the Abu Dhabi owners, to a different level.
For PSG, whose frustration in Europe has been comparable to City’s, even if it 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.
Inter’s pitch would be more personal, given Messi’s father Jorge has reportedly bought a house close to the club’s offices while the Italian outfit has fostered close relations with the Messi family for years.
With Antonio Conte as coach and ambitious Chinese owners, Messi might be drawn to Inter, where the tax regulations would be less punitive and the disapproval less pronounced, given the club’s history and tradition.
Staying at Barcelona remains a possibility, 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.
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