When the six-time Ballon d’Or winner finally left Barcelona after 21 years, the Premier League champions had already moved on to other targets
There was always a feeling at Manchester City that if Lionel Messi ever left Barcelona, he would end up at the Etihad Stadium.
Other than the weather, everything was in place for him to find a slice of his beloved Catalunya in Manchester: a squad to match his ambition, a salary to equal his expectations and, crucially, a coach that had previously extracted the very best out of his unique talent.
There was even the allure of a less pressurised environment, the kind that allows Pep Guardiola to go for dinner at his city centre restaurant without being pestered by supporters.
Yet when Messi’s Barca departure was put beyond all doubt during a tearful press conference, City were no longer interested in signing the six-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Such an astonishing development could have thrown City’s summer transfer plans into chaos, but rather than scrambling to put a package together for Messi, they moved forward with plans to seal a £100 million British-record deal for Jack Grealish with the prospect of at least one more major deal to follow.
The No.10 shirt, vacated by Sergio Aguero following his move in the opposite direction to Camp Nou, was handed to Grealish – even to the England international’s surprise – with no suggestion of holding it back for anyone else.
City had moved on from building their dream around the ultimate superstar signing and were sticking to the carefully laid plans they had in place for this summer.
“We were convinced by Grealish and convinced Leo would stay at Barca,” Guardiola told his first news conference of the season. “Right now, he is not in our thoughts.”
Just a year ago, it was a completely different story. Messi wanted to leave Barca and believing it could happen, City were at the front of the queue for his signature.
But the Argentine revealed in an earth-shattering interview with Goal that despite feeling betrayed by then-Blaugrana president Josep Maria Bartomeu, he was going to stay at Camp Nou because of his unwillingness to become embroiled in a legal dispute with the club he joined as a 13-year-old.
This time around, Messi wanted to stay and was shocked when a deal could not be agreed because of Barca’s financial problems, prompting the sudden search for a new club. Paris Saint-Germain moved quickly but without competition from England.
Heading into the winter of 2020, City had contemplated a move for the 34-year-old, with his future uncertain as his controversial contract moved into its final six months.
Presidential elections changed the landscape at Barca, with Joan Laporta, who was in charge for the most successful period in the club’s history, voted in by club members, generating fresh hope among the fans and the players.
Notably, Messi cast his own vote – a gesture that suggested he would stay at the club if his preferred candidate won.
At that point, City’s hierarchy, including former Barca executives Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, were no longer in any doubt that Messi would finish his top-level career in Catalunya, particularly with no encouragement coming from Messi’s circle.
With a significant summer ahead, they decided to switch from being his fall-back option to concentrate on other transfer targets.
Although Aguero’s last season was wrecked by injury and illness setbacks, replacing the forward was made the club’s top priority. And City knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Aguero had scored 23 or more goals in eight of the previous nine seasons and while City survived and flourished by playing with a false nine during last season’s Premier League title triumph, their goal tally was the lowest since Guardiola’s first year in charge at the club.
The worry now is that the window will close without City having successfully brought in a world-class centre-forward to lead the line in 2021-22.
Erling Haaland was a target until Borussia Dortmund ruled out doing business unless they were given an extraordinary fee, while trying to prize Harry Kane away from Tottenham is proving unsurprisingly difficult.
Yet, despite City’s struggles, they never seriously entertained the idea of signing Messi to add goals to their attack.
Guardiola wanted Grealish before the end of last season and, after adding the former Aston Villa man to a squad that already included a plethora of technically gifted players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling, it was felt that Messi’s skills were no longer required.
A centre-forward who can score 30 goals and lead the line was paramount. Messi may still be the world’s most talented footballer at 34 but he is not what’s required right now.
Guardiola is building for the future, with Grealish and Foden ready to become superstars, while the peerless playmaker De Bruyne remains determined to inspire City to Champions League glory.
Chief executive Soriano had said they would “open the doors wide” if Messi came available in 2016 but, in the end, they stayed shut when the Argentine’s arrival actually became a possibility.
Messi was always a dream signing for City but the timing was simply never right for it to become a reality. — goal.com