Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain share many parallels. Two clubs from major cities who found themselves on the ropes when major investment from the Middle East propelled them to the top of their domestic leagues. Both have gone to the Champions League final and fallen at the final hurdle. Most pertinently, tonight’s meeting between the sides at the Parc des Princes is a clash of two teams set up to accommodate Lionel Messi.
Of course only one team can field the diminutive Argentine legend, and the Ligue 1 side will be doing the honours this evening. Messi joined in the summer after his protracted departure from a crumbling Barcelona, eventually joining one of the few sides who could feasibly afford his wages. Another of the sides that could pay his reported €35 million a year wages are Manchester City. And for a number of years, it looked like the City Football Group were mobilising to do just that.
City’s long and ultimately unsuccessful road to Messi began in earnest in 2012. It was then that the seeds of the steady ‘Barcafication’ of the club were planted. The Manchester club were fresh off their famous first Premier League title win, manager Roberto Mancini leading them to the promised land four years after the takeover. The following Autumn, two former Barcelona executives joined City. Former Director Of Football Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, who had held various board roles, represented a huge executive reshuffle at City. The fact that the two new hires had served in high-profile roles during the period where Barcelona were hailed as the finest team on the planet led to rampant speculation. They were not the only big departures from the Catalan club that summer, as manager Pep Guardiola also took his leave from Camp Nou.
Guardiola famously took a year-long sabbatical in Manhattan rather than returning to the cauldron of high-level management, and despite persistent rumours, he joined Bayern Munich rather than City when he returned. Begiristain and Soriano were willing to play the long game though, replacing title winner Mancini with Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini. Three years and one Premier League trophy later, the Spaniards would get their man. Guardiola joined City in 2016, fulfilling what many had prophesied when Soriano and Begiristain first joined the club.
The final piece of this distinctly Catalan-influenced puzzle was Lionel Messi. The managerial and executive structure that brought Barcelona their greatest period would pursue the player who was central to that success, Lionel Messi. Mundo Deportivo have since reported that as early as the summer Pep joined, Messi was making noises about wanting a move to City. Reportedly teammate Luis Suarez talked him into staying on that occasion, but the rumours never dissipated. Every summer would bring fresh speculation on the ultimate one-club man doing the unthinkable and joining the burgeoning Barca revolution at the Etihad.
This summer that talk reached a crescendo, when the sorry state of Barcelona’s finances meant they could not extend Messi’s contract. One of the best two footballers of a generation would be available on a free, albeit while commanding a weighty contract for his services. The timing appeared fortuitous as well, with the Cityzens in need of a forward after Sergio Aguero moving the other way. This was the moment the club had been building towards. First they had put the boardroom structure in place, then the manager who implemented an attractive, passing style of play. All that was needed was the generational forward who could make it all tick. And then Lionel Messi signed for PSG.
The first clue that the Messi saga would not reach the predicted end came when City spent £100 million to sign Jack Grealish. When the Aston Villa man joined, he was handed the number 10 jersey, one that is synonymous with a certain Argentine icon. Pep spoke in interviews and press conferences about his certainty that the Messi would find a way to stay with Barcelona, and when it became clear he would not, the former midfielder insisted he was still happy with his lot in Grealish. Another barrier was City’s rather public pursuit of Harry Kane. A different, more traditional sort of forward, the Tottenham Hotspur man seemed to be Pep’s only serious choice for an Aguero replacement.
That transfer did not happen either, but by the time a Kane move was entirely out of the realm of possibility, Messi had already posed with his new number 30 shirt in Paris. Guardiola has been relaxed about this, all along insisting he is happy with Grealish as City’s only summer business. This has been borne out on the pitch too, with Ferran Torres continuing to play as an unorthodox number nine as the Blues have made a solid start to the season.
For Messi, things have not been as straightforward. He is without a goal in three games so far. In reality, a little too much has been made of this statistic, and it’s hard to envision the 34-year-old not returning to his best. He might even find extra motivation tonight as he faces up to what could have been. Manchester City are a team that seems genetically engineered, from boardroom to pitch, for Lionel Messi. But in 2021, they are also a team that looks like they don’t need him. Messi will surely be keen to show them what they’re missing.