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Lionel Messi will run back into Pep Guardiola’s arms at Manchester City

When Pep Guardiola quit as Barcelona boss in an emotional press conference in 2012, the room was full of his most important players, but Lionel Messi was nowhere to be seen.

Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique were among those looking on from the front row as Guardiola stepped down as coach but Messi, then 24, had been too cut-up to attend.

He later posted on social media: ‘I want to thank Pep for all that he has given me in my career and on a personal level. Because of how emotional I feel, I prefer not to be at the press conference. Above all, because I know they will look for the sad faces of the players and I do not want to show mine.’

Messi has missed Guardiola ever since and the feeling has been mutual. But Guardiola has always dismissed the idea that Messi could end up with him at Manchester City.

As recently as last February, he declared: ‘He is a player from Barcelona and he will stay there, that’s my wish for him.’

But underpinning that stance has always been the belief that Barcelona would never be so negligent as to allow him to leave.

That is no longer the case. For the first time since the two parted company, the reunion is on.

City know they have to tread carefully. 

FIFA would allow them to sign Messi while he is still in dispute with Barcelona over whether or not he is a free agent.

But they would risk being hit with sanctions and a huge transfer bill if FIFA ruled at a later date in Barcelona’s favour.

On Wednesday morning, Barcelona presented a new signing, 20-year-old winger Francisco Trincao. And the club’s president, Josep Bartomeu, left it to his technical secretary Ramon Planes to say: ‘We are not contemplating the departure of Messi, we want him to stay.’

But by the afternoon, Bartomeu was briefing that he wanted face-to-face talks with Messi. 

He has not spoken to him since the 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Their relationship looks unfixable and Messi is ready to run back into the arms of familiar friends Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, with whom he was on good terms at Barcelona before they left for Manchester City.

The free agent contract wrangle remains the biggest obstacle to them working with Messi once more. 

The last contract Messi signed — in 2017 — allowed him an option at the end of every season to leave on a free transfer, providing he gave notice of his intention to do so in the first 10 days of June.

When there was no news from Messi during that period this year, Bartomeu took it as read that the deadline had passed and Messi was now tied to the club for another year.

But Messi believes, and informed the club via burofax (a Spanish fax-like document) on Tuesday, that because the season did not end until August because of the pandemic, he is still at liberty to exercise his right to leave the club for free.

If City believe Messi is right, they could get a provisional international transfer certificate from FIFA and register him before the October 5 deadline.

FIFA would then rule on the dispute between Barcelona and Manchester City in the early part of next year.

If they then decided that Messi was right about being a free agent, City would be in the clear. But if FIFA ruled that Barcelona were right, then City could be forced to buy out the final year of his contract and face possible sanctions.

Messi could resolve things in Spain by going to an employment tribunal where a judge would decide how much, if anything, he should pay to get himself out of his contract.

But that process would be lengthy and would not enable City to register Messi before the October deadline.

Barcelona could also decide to negotiate a settlement with Messi which would involve the player buying himself out of his final year or City paying a transfer fee.

But the club are so far maintaining that, unless a buyer breaks the transfer world record set by Neymar’s €222million (£198m) move to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, they will not release the player.

Opposition to Barcelona president Bartomeu continued to grow on Wednesday with a second night of protests at the gates of the Nou Camp.

Prospective presidential candidates were also manoeuvring to force a vote of no confidence that would trigger elections and might force a change of heart from Messi.

But the process of gathering the necessary 16,000 signatures and then mobilising members to vote two-thirds in favour of the board resigning is time-consuming and further hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is also a growing sense that Messi’s mind is made up and that, regardless of developments, if the messy contract situation can be resolved, he will return to the coach he won 14 trophies with in four seasons — and he will play in the Premier League for Manchester City.

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