IT’S a tale as old as time, English football’s most enduring fantasy.
Lionel Messi rocking up in a Manchester City shirt and proving he can do it on a cold Tuesday night at Burnley – a date the Premier League fixture compilers would feel obliged to fix up for him.
Each time Messi wants Barcelona to replace the club president or head coach or each time the Argentinian maestro fancies a pay rise, ears prick up at the Etihad.
And in the unlikely event that Messi leaves the Nou Camp, surely no club in possession of a good fortune could possibly turn him down.
Least of all City – who have been aiming to rebuild Barcelona in east Manchester for several years now.
First came the suits – director of football Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano. Then their great chum Pep Guardiola.
And then City produced the sort of liquid-gold football served up during Barca’s greatest era – at domestic level, if not in the Champions League.
But landing Messi has always been the improbable dream.
And now, with Messi and Guardiola humiliated in Champions League quarter-finals on successive nights, there is renewed talk of getting the band back together at the Etihad.
However forlorn he looked in Barcelona’s 8-2 thrashing by Bayern Munich, the 32-year-old Messi remains the single most watchable player on the planet and one of the most effective.
Yet, what if Messi isn’t the solution for City? And what if Guardiola is no longer the answer either?
Anyone who witnessed Guardiola’s Barca reaching their peak as they played Manchester United off the Wembley pitch in the 2011 Champions League will attest that their eyes had seen pure glory.
It was natural that this should become the template for City’s boundlessly ambitious and wealthy Abu Dhabi owners.
Begiristain and Soriano arrived the following year, then Guardiola in 2016.
And with his two close chums running the show, Guardiola is unsackable.
Even after a season in which City finished 18 points behind Liverpool and were dumped out of the Champions League by Lyon, the seventh best team in France, after Guardiola’s tactical brainstorm.
Most other managers at elite clubs will wish they had such friends in high places.
For instance, Maurizio Sarri – sacked by Chelsea after winning the Europa League and then by Juventus after winning Serie A – who will be spending his many cigarette breaks with one of his quizzical looks on.
The consistent levels of brilliance achieved during City’s 100-point title winning campaign of 2017-18 and their domestic treble the following season would give him credit at any club.
But the brutal reality is that – despite the eye-candy football and the brilliant coaching which has improved so many players – Guardiola has failed domestically in two seasons out of four at City and failed in all four Champions League campaigns.
Faced with a relatively-modest Lyon side, Guardiola did not trust his own players or even his own philosophy – sending out a weirdly defensive team and ceding the initiative.
So if Guardiola no longer trusts his own instincts, should City?
That Lyon defeat wasn’t merely a case of City’s Champions League inferiority complex striking again.
Guardiola’s men have been beaten at regular intervals this season by teams who shouldn’t be fit to polish their boots.
Guardiola’s peak was nine years ago. Nobody talks about tiki-taka football any more.
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His City team have been overtaken by a new more dynamic approach, practised by the relentless winning machines of Liverpool and Bayern.
Of course, any football lover would be intrigued by the unlikely prospect of a Guardiola-Messi reunion at the Etihad.
But even Messi needs great team-mates to reach his greatest highs – be that Xavi and Andres Iniesta or Luiz Suarez and Neymar when Barca last ruled Europe in 2015.
Messi does not lift more modest teams in the way his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo has done.
So slotting Messi into the current City side would not guarantee them claiming that coveted European Cup or even overhauling Liverpool in the Premier League.
Guardiola has a year left on his City contract, he has a history of burn-out and his team are on a downward trajectory.
Perhaps this is the moment when City should stop obsessing about their Barca model, tear up their long-term project and start afresh.
That would be a bold move, an unlikely move, perhaps a reckless one.
But this isn’t 2011 any more, elite football has moved on, as it has always done.
So is Guardiola still the man?
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