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.
The Argentina captain abandoned his attempt to leave Barca in the summer following a two-week saga that, for the first time, raised the real prospect of the 33-year-old playing for another club. While he ultimately decided to stay, it always felt like a temporary truce. And throughout the Messi-Barca stand-off, City stood waiting in the wings, ready to do the deal to sign arguably the greatest player the world has ever seen.
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.
Guardiola gave a mixed message in response to questions about Messi on Friday, initially suggesting he wanted him to stay at Barcelona, before firmly leaving the door open for a move for the player
"As a Barcelona fan, I want Leo to finish there," Guardiola said. "But his contract finishes this year, and I don't know what will happen in his mind. Right now, he is a Barcelona player and the transfer market is in June and July. We have incredible games and targets and things we would like to achieve. That is the only thing in our mind. The rest I cannot say anything."
With a presidential election at Barcelona scheduled for late January, there remains a hope within the club that whoever replaces the outgoing Josep Maria Bartomeu -- whose strained relationship with Messi has been a central factor in the player's discontent -- will be able to persuade him to stay at Camp Nou for the rest of his career.
But it may be too late by then because the odds are beginning to be stacked against Barcelona. Under coach Ronald Koeman, Barca have made a dismal start to their La Liga campaign, with three defeats in eight games leaving the team 12th -- 12 points behind early leaders Real Sociedad. Messi has looked a forlorn figure at times, and he has scored just six goals in 11 games so far in all competitions. Decent figures for most players, but below-par numbers for the six-time Ballon d'Or winner. Koeman has even left Messi out of his squad for this week's Champions League trip to Dinamo Kiev, to give his talisman a rest. The upsides of committing to a new contract at Barcelona are looking pretty thin for Messi, with the prospect of being revitalised by a move elsewhere looking more appealing by the week.
City have started their Premier League campaign poorly this season, and they sit 13th, eight points behind leaders Tottenham Hotspur, albeit having played one game fewer than Jose Mourinho's team. But despite City's struggle for form, they have the resources and ambition to rebuild under Guardiola, and Messi's desperation to win another Champions League, combined with City's determination to win it for the first time, could be a winning combination.
With Messi earning a basic salary of around €78 million ($92m) a year excluding endorsements at Barcelona, according to Forbes, some might argue that City would be wise to spend their money elsewhere. For instance, a year of Messi's wages and image rights would go a long way toward funding a move for Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland as a long-term replacement for Sergio Aguero. But signing Messi would be about more than what he could contribute on the pitch. From a commercial perspective, it would further boost City's off-field earning power and elevate them to a higher level in terms of attractiveness to potential sponsors and fans across the globe.
Ever since they failed to sign Kaka from AC Milan in 2009, City have pursued a game-changing superstar to become the face of their team. They also fell short when trying to sign Wayne Rooney, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, but Messi would top them all, and Guardiola's new deal only increases their chances of signing him within the next six months.