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Lionel Messi is more likely to stay at Barcelona than leave for Man City

The first thing to make clear is that Lionel Messi, plus his father and representative Jorge and the Barcelona board, have known for several years about Manchester City's wish to buy the world's greatest footballer.

As long ago as 2008, Barcelona set up a system of communication with "Team Messi," which worked like this:

Messi's contract would be renewed regularly -- almost annually -- based on the club's recognition that he is not only their best-ever player but potentially the best in the history of the game.

Barcelona agreed that he'd not only always be at the top of their salary pyramid, but that they would attempt to make him the world's highest-paid player.

Barcelona also accepted that they could not always use Messi as the face of their marketing, advertising or sponsorship. There would, always, have to be at least three players featured in major campaigns -- and not always Messi.

And, perhaps most importantly, Barcelona also committed to proving to Messi that they would always be competitive for major titles by restocking the squad with first-class players on a regular basis.

In return, Messi's father made clear he would keep the club abreast of enquiries from other clubs without turning that process into the kind of "gentle blackmail" that agents use to leverage more money out of a club a star is in demand. This "open channel" of communication was aimed at keeping Barcelona informed and strategically aware.

Meanwhile, Man City have quite legitimately made it clear that they would like to be first in line, should Messi ever decide that he requires a new adventure / an exit from the Camp Nou / a bigger contract than he can get from his current employers.

Rather than committing any kind of transfer market misdemeanor, such as swamping the player with mind-boggling offers of money and then attempting to suggest that Barcelona are under-valuing him, City's the tactic has simply been: "We want you when and if you're ready to move."

Messi's infinitely complex contract, which is probably the most detailed and far-reaching in football history -- give or take the paperwork needed to commit Cristiano Ronaldo to Madrid until 2021 -- has a buy-out clause of €250 million.

So complicated is the clausula de rescission system that, unless a club agreed to sell for €249.9m, i.e. almost all of the money but without invoking the actual clause, there would likely be an additional tax payment involved for the buying club. That could take the total sum, before any wages were calculated, in excess of €350m.

City could avoid that by waiting until Jan. 1, 2018, when they could sign a pre-contract agreement for Messi to join them for free the following summer. That is, if Messi doesn't renegotiate and extend his Barcelona deal in the meantime.

Lionel Messi celebrates the first of his three goals against Manchester City on Wednesday.
Lionel Messi has only ever played for Barcelona. But, if he chooses to leave one day, Manchester City will be waiting.

Which brings it all back to the fundamental question, launched by Marca newspaper a couple of weeks ago and augmented in the English press at the weekend.

Marca claimed that "Team Messi" told Barcelona that they wouldn't be renewing the current deal and that implied Messi would leave the Camp Nou in the summer of 2018 at the latest.

But if Barcelona became absolutely convinced ahead of that time that this magical footballer wanted to go then, at that point, their shrewd option would be to sell for the highest possible fee. Certainly a new world record.

The line from England has been that City want to buy Messi, potentially for a sum near to his buyout clause.

In Catalunya, the media is being briefed that Barcelona's board remain firmly confident of agreeing a new deal with the player.

And, further, that when there was initial contact with his representatives last summer the hiatus wasn't that Messi "wasn't going to renew" but that, having lost a third straight international tournament final and emotionally retired from the Argentina team, it wasn't the time to commence renegotiations with a fresh, optimistic, clear mind.

That's fair enough but what the great minds on Barcelona's board must figure out is this: Is this a tactic saying "give us a little bit of space" or "we're playing for time and stalling because there's a real danger of leaving"?

It is hard to tell but there is a vast difference between the two stances.

Have his travails with Spain's various tax and judicial authorities, about which Messi feels harshly treated, affected him and the people around him sufficiently to erode his affection and loyalty to Barcelona, both club and city?

Beyond the vast salary and signing-on fee he could command at City, is there sufficient attraction in working with the English club's CEO Ferran Soriano, director of football Txiki Begiristain and manager Pep Guardiola again to make the idea of moving attractive? Anyone who says that it's all about money simply doesn't know anything about Messi.

Barcelona's board will try and figure to what degree life on Spain's northeastern coast -- Messi's mansion is within a couple of minutes of the beach -- is a factor, compared to the climate in England and the fact that his world outside football is massively oriented around his kids and their outdoor life. Is it also a factor, they'll ask themselves, that Messi would have to confront living and working in English rather than Spanish?

Then there's something else which, if there is any inkling in Messi's mind to move, will be hugely important: His national team, despite some horrific recent results, retain a firm chance of qualifying for the World Cup in Russia, which takes place in the summer of 2018, right at the time Messi's current Barcelona contract ends.

The concept that he's tired of his current life and that he yearns for a new sporting adventure in England, as well as the benefit of his kids growing up multi-lingual is, while difficult to believe, not bizarre.

What would be outlandish, though, is Messi committing to go through the upset, emotional turmoil, distraction and media drama of a move at a time when he'll have what is likely to be his last genuine chance of inspiring Argentina to win the World Cup.

Historically, Barcelona have a very poor record of retaining and getting maximum return from their best players, such as Johan Cruyff, Romario, Michael Laudrup, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Ronaldinho.

But they remain in the box seat as far as Messi is concerned and the right way to interpret this latest splurge of publicity is simply to accept that Man City offer healthy competition for when a new contract is tabled at the Camp Nou.

Are City in a position to wrench the Argentinian away from where he's been happy and successful? They're contenders, perhaps; but favourites? No.

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.

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