He's had a public bust-up with Eric Abidal and has an exit clause in his contract. Is Lionel Messi's time at Barcelona nearly up?
Messi and Barcelona have been a golden combination for the best part of two decades. But after calling out sporting director Eric Abidal on social media this week, and with a clause in his contract allowing him to leave on a free this summer, there are suggestions a break-up could be on the cards.
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The Argentinian has been linked with a Pep Guardiola reunion at Manchester City, under whom he twice won the Champions League as well as three La Liga titles across four remarkable years at the Nou Camp. Messi also won four of his six Ballons d'Or during their time together.
A departure from the Spanish champions has often been spoken about but the rhetoric has changed, in so much as club legend Lobo Carrasco told Spanish TV this week: "It's the first time Messi has looked to me like he has one foot out of the door."
Messi-Abidal spat - what exactly was said?
In an interview with Catalan newspaper Sport on Tuesday, Abidal claimed "lots of players were not satisfied [with former head coach Ernesto Valverde] and nor did they work a lot".
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He added: "There was also an issue of internal communication. The relationship manager-dressing room has always been good but there are things, as a former player, I can smell. I told the club what I thought and that [I thought] a decision had to be made."
Messi fought back on his Instagram page, posting a picture of the interview, circling the area of contention which read: "The man in charge of the sporting directorate explains that 'lots of players were not satisfied and nor did they work much'."
The Argentine subsequently denied that Valverde's sacking was the players' responsibility and accused Abidal of "dirtying" the squad.
"Honestly, I don't like doing these things but I think that everyone has to be responsible for his acts and take responsibility for their own decisions," Messi wrote.
"The players [are responsible for] what happens on the pitch, and we have been the first to recognise when we were not good. The people in the sporting directorate should also assume their responsibility and above all take ownership of the decisions they make.
"Finally, I think that when players are talked about, names should be given because, if not, we are all being dirtied and it feeds comments that are made and are not true."
Will the unthinkable really happen?
Speculation that the 32-year-old could be angling for a move has not slowed down, and the timing of Barcelona's late 1-0 defeat by Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey quarter-final on Thursday will not help.
Messi admitted in the summer he wanted the club to sign Neymar, which they failed to do.
"I don't know if they did everything they could," he said.
Barcelona's failure to find a short-term replacement for the injured Luis Suarez during the January transfer window has hardly helped those sentiments.
Will Messi leave on a free transfer?
The new head coach, Quique Setien, has stayed out of this dispute but having a happy Messi onside will be crucial to whether his tenure proves long-lasting. Could the worst-case scenario unfold whereby his talisman departs the Nou Camp this summer?
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Remarkably, Messi can potentially leave on a free transfer due to the number of contracts he has signed during his time with the club.
Spanish football expert Terry Gibson told Sky Sports: "At the age he is now, 32, it's become evident in recent contracts that at the end of the season, he can give a month's notice, and can leave for free. It would be an expensive free transfer as his salary is still about £50m a year, so it's not exactly free.
"That will come into the equation for a lot of clubs, but this is a reflection of his frustration with what Barcelona have done, or haven't done, in the transfer market over the last couple of seasons.
"It came to a head when a lot of players wanted Neymar back, and that didn't happen. With Ousmane Dembele joining Suarez in being out for the rest of the season, the expectation was that they would find another player up front, but that didn't happen.
"Abidal was influential in sacking Ernesto Valverde, and then put in public that he felt the players were to blame. It's a shame because they're former team-mates - but I feel it can be resolved because of that. It's not just another suit that Messi's not in touch with so hopefully they can smooth it over, but they need to start winning games again.
"His stipulation has always been that Barcelona are competitive in La Liga and in the Champions League - we know what's happened there in the past couple of seasons. I still think it's unlikely that Lionel Messi will leave."
Messi vs Abidal: Who has more power at Barcelona?
In one word: Messi.
"It's not for the wrong reasons," continues Gibson. "We shouldn't forget what Messi's done and what he's achieved. He's been a big influence both on and off the pitch for Barcelona.
"He's the best player in the world and possibly of all time. By and large, he's used his status in the right way, so I think every president knows that Messi is going to be more popular than them, and rightly so.
"That also applies to the sporting director [technical secretary]. Abidal is the fourth in five seasons. I feel it's a job too soon for him as it's the first job he's had in this line of work and it's one of the biggest clubs in world football.
"It's one of the most important jobs in the world. He's answerable to a lot of people, a do not mess with Lionel Messi - it's an easy route to cause friction, and I hope it can be resolved."
Speaking to Sky Sports on Wednesday, Spanish football expert Alvaro Montero suggested Abidal could be fired over the row.
He said: "In the last five, six years people from Barcelona - the press, the fans - they realise that Lionel Messi is not only the best player in the world but also the director, the manager and the coach of FC Barcelona.
"Abidal is set for a meeting and if he is fired, maybe everyone is going to think Messi has done it again. If not, we must remember the situation for the next year and a half, until the summer of 2021, is going to be extremely hard. If I had to bet I would say he will continue, but he might step away and leave FC Barcelona."
What the papers are saying?
Catalan newspaper L'Esportiu report that Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has decided to retain his faith in Abidal after showdown talks involving the pair, leading with the headline: "And today, the match", focusing on the game on Thursday evening with Bilbao, which Barcelona lost 1-0 late on.
Elsewhere in the Spanish press, Diario AS reflect the "precarious peace" that remains ahead of the Copa del Rey clash at the San Mames, reiterating that the tension between Abidal and Messi has been eased following discussions with Bartomeu.
Meanwhile, Sport runs with the headline "Here peace, and after Copa" - Bartomeu called Messi and reunited him with Abidal to pacify the club after their pointed exchange.
Mundo Deportivo simply reads "He stays" in reference to the Barcelona president's decision to keep Abidal on as the club's technical secretary after a summit that lasted two hours following earlier talks between Messi and Setien.
But that has not stopped the Italian press from reporting that Messi could be tempted into a summer move.
Front page La Gazzetta dello Sport lead with the headline in Spanish "Bad Messi" - "The flea [his nickname] is angry and in June he could leave Barca.
The front page reads: "Why Serie A would intrigue Leo Messi. Free transfer - Here are the clubs that can try: PSG, City, United, Juve and Inter could think about it. Abidal goes for Neymar and Lautaro [Martinez]."
Will Man City be his next destination?
Analysis from Sky Sports News north-west reporter Ben Ransom:
It's the sort of story that will have put everyone at Manchester City on high alert, not least because of the incredibly close ties between Lionel Messi and his former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola has consistently said that the Argentine is the best player that he has ever worked with, while City have always kept an eye on Messi's situation.
There is a strong feeling that if he were to leave Barca then they would be at the front of the queue to be able to sign him. No one would be better placed to do a deal than City executives Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, who remain incredibly well-respected in Catalonia.
In football terms, the timing would be perfect. City are currently planning their strategy to refresh the squad - with David Silva's impending departure about to open up an attacking space.
While Liverpool appear destined to win the Premier League title this season, a superstar signing like Messi could almost instantly close the gap between the teams.
It may all still feel like a flight of fancy, and the expectation in Manchester remains that Messi will stay put this summer, but if he were to seriously think about a new challenge then you can be sure that Guardiola would be top of the call list.
'Any deal with City could pay for itself'
Analysis from Football finance expert Kieran Maguire:
"You've got to look at the cost for the club as a whole, which is normally a transfer fee plus wages.
"So even if Messi was looking for £800,000 to £1m a week, over the course of three years, I think a club would look at the total cost of somewhere between £100m and £150m and say that it would be money well worth it.
"Messi brings with him the cache of being the world's best footballer and 100 million Instagram followers. To put that into context, Manchester City only have 17 million.
"In terms of additional income, the club will be in a position to charge more money for hospitality, they'll be able to go to their sponsors and ask, 'do you want your product shown alongside Messi and are you willing to pay extra for it?' To a certain extent, any deal could pay for itself."
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