Lionel Messi lining up for Manchester City. Flying down the wing in the club’s famous sky-blue livery. Taking a Kevin De Bruyne pass on the centre circle and ghosting past four opponents before a feint left, a low-slung hip-swivel right and a swing of his magic left foot that sends the ball high into the goal, kissing the back of the net as the Etihad Stadium raises the roof.
A fantasy? Messi reunited with Pep Guardiola, under whom at Barcelona from 2008-12 the Argentinian produced some of the most scintillating form of his glittering career? Messi, the Barça boy and man who joined the Catalan club as a quiet 13-year-old and matured into the Blaugrana’s greatest footballer and one of the best in the game’s history, leaving to sign for City to perform again for Guardiola?
The stance at the Etihad Stadium is that Messi is a supreme footballer and Guardiola continues to admire the player rated as the finest he has managed. And that, actually, it could be possible to sign him. City certainly believe they have a chance of pulling off a deal for the ages. A chance of taking Messi from his spiritual football home to a new challenge in east Manchester in what would be the signing of the Premier League era if not any era of a domestic game that dates from the late 1800s.
Messi playing in England would be seismic. The arrival of a four-time Champions League winner and six-time recipient of the Ballon d’Or would take a league supposedly impossible to hype any further into a new dimension of fevered attraction. Except Messi’s presence might just make this new hyperbole credible.
And what about for City, as a club and as a team trying to win matches and trophies? It would instantly vault them to the next level, in their on- and off-field profile. Of the latter, City’s glamour factor would hit the rarefied air occupied by the exclusive set. Suddenly the City story would include a glorious chapter of the time an immortal of the game landed to lead the Sheikh Mansour project. City would become a destination club of the ilk of Real Madrid, Barça and Bayern Munich.
City would have Messi like Manchester United have George Best. And while the diminutive wizard’s image would be beamed high across the Etihad Stadium facade, on the pitch there would be a lightning shot to the arms and legs of Guardiola’s team, the timing sweetly apposite as the 49-year-old embarks on a major rebuild four years after taking over.
With David Silva gone, Fernandinho 35, Sergio Agüero 33 in June and Gabriel Jesus yet to convince – plus a wobbly defence – Messi would transform the picture for City and the vision of where the team could go. The serial disappointments in the Champions League under Guardiola – being eliminated in the last 16, quarter-final, quarter-final, quarter-final – would be replaced by a genuine ability to compete for the one prize City have yet to claim. And on the domestic front the 18-point chasm to Liverpool last season would instantly be closed and the bid to reclaim the Premier League title seriously revitalised.
What position for him, then: where might Messi operate for City? Here, Guardiola would be in fantasy football mode made real. At No 10 behind Agüero or in midfield alongside De Bruyne seem the obvious options. Yet Messi could, of course, play anywhere and be the X factor; Guardiola often cites how Messi has a second-sight understanding of the game that removes the need for any coaching, instruction, or the shackling to a designated position: he simply knows where to go and when.
Which leads to the question already being asked: would and could Lionel Messi prosper in the Premier League? In a more frenetic and muscular English game that, according to the naysayers, might prove too robust for a 33-year-old who has only experienced the slower, more studious club football of Spain.
For a man who possesses a one-off gift the answer is surely a resounding yes. But what a spectacle it would be to watch him pull on a City shirt and see whether he can.