Messi is set to join Manchester City, say Barca
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Messi is set to join Manchester City, say Barca

Senior figures at Barcelona expect Lionel Messi to join Manchester City, with the Spanish club preparing for life without their iconic captain by looking at potential replacements including Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez.

The direction of City's summer transfer strategy has changed significantly in recent weeks with prospective deals that might have been expected to have been pushed through now placed on hold while the club negotiate for the game's greatest player.

Special: Lionel Messi and Josep Guardiola.

Special: Lionel Messi and Josep Guardiola. Credit:AP

Messi had hoped to leave on a free transfer but that is looking highly unlikely with City expected to have to pay a significant fee to sign the 33-year-old if a deal can be agreed.

It is understood that key individuals at the Catalan club believe that City's pursuit of Messi - who handed in a transfer request on Tuesday - may well prove successful in what would be one of the most remarkable transfers in history.

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The news comes with City manager Pep Guardiola facing the prospect of isolating for 14 days after travelling to Barcelona last week. A picture of him alongside a restaurant owner in the city circulated on social media on Friday.

It is understood City are relaxed about Guardiola's trip. The majority of his players are on international duty and are not expected back until Sept 9 or 10 when they will have to be tested for coronavirus.

Guardiola would be back at the training ground on Sept 12 giving him nine days before the club's first game of the season.

For Barcelona, labouring under a wage bill of €671 million ($A1.084 billion) and losses from the pandemic estimated at €154 million from their projected budget, the fee for Messi (right) is crucial for the club.

There would have been little prospect of major reinvestment without it, with Martinez previously thought to be out of their price range. City will be well aware of the club's financial difficulties, as well as Messi's dissatisfaction, and it is that which has given them encouragement to try to secure a deal for the player.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that the club were taking a hard line with any prospective buyer, indicating that they would not be prepared to negotiate with any other party to sell their captain and most celebrated player.

The Messi camp's position that the delay to the season's end means he should be able to activate the May 31 clause in his contract that allows him to leave for free is likely to fail. They had previously argued that clause should be extended to tomorrow, the end of this month.

As an alternative, there are no names on Messi's scale who could reasonably be acquired by Barcelona.

Martinez, 23, has been one of the finest prospects in Serie A this season but it goes without saying that his goal to games ratio is nothing like that of his fellow Argentine. Barcelona had a pre-existing agreement from January to sign the Portuguese striker Francisco Trincao from the Portuguese club Braga for a fee worth about £26 million. Deals with clubs who allow Barcelona to pay fees in instalments have long been their preference.

The Barcelona players are expected to return to the club today (Sunday) for coronavirus testing with training beginning tomorrow ahead of the restart to the season on the second weekend of next month. Messi's buy-out clause from his deal, signed in November 2017, is €700 million ($A1.131 billion).

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He has one year left to run on the contract and there is no prospect of a new deal being signed. Before the 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich that ended Barcelona's season, friends and allies of Messi including his former team-mate Xavi Hernandez had said that the club should give him a new deal.

The Daily Telegraph