Barcelona have hit a big stumbling block in their attempt to register Lionel Messi’s new contract — ESPN’s Insider Notebook has the latest. PLUS: An ex-Man United star wanted by Chelsea.
Messi business: Barcelona struggling to finance deal
Barcelona‘s drive to reduce their wage bill has hit a significant obstacle as they struggle to make room to register their new signings and Lionel Messi‘s new contract, various sources told ESPN. The club must reduce their outgoings to ensure they comply with La Liga’s spending limits next season. If they can’t, they risk not being able to register Messi’s new contract or new signings Memphis Depay, Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia and Emerson Royal.
Barca have until the end of the transfer window on Aug. 31 to submit Messi’s deal and their new signings to La Liga, but internally they want everything resolved before Aug. 15, when they kick off their league season at home to Real Sociedad. League president Javier Tebas has said he will not relax the rules for Barcelona, and a failure to get their finances in order could see Messi, if he signs the five-year deal revealed by ESPN last week, unable to play until at least January, as happened with Getafe midfielder Pedro Leon in 2014.
Barca managed to move on several youngsters and fringe players earlier in the transfer window, including United States international Konrad de la Fuente’s move to Marseille, but they are struggling to get rid of the big earners. The club have also failed to agree to terms on a pay cut with long-serving players Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. Sources said director of football Mateu Alemany has spoken with the trio’s agents, but none have shown an appetite to cut their earnings to help the club yet. Busquets earns around €16 million a year at the club, while Alba is on €13m and Roberto €10.5m.
ESPN previously explained that the quickest way to make those savings was through Antoine Griezmann, but talks for the forward to return to Atletico Madrid have stalled. Barca and Atletico had been in negotiations over a swap deal, which would see midfielder Saul Niguez move in the other direction to Camp Nou, but they cannot agree on player valuations.
Griezmann, who would fancy a move back to Atletico over a Premier League switch, according to ESPN sources, doesn’t want to take a hit on his salary of around €35m a year, which means Barca may have to contribute to his wages in order to push any deal through. They did something similar when Luis Suarez left for Atletico Madrid last summer.
Miralem Pjanic and Samuel Umtiti have been told they don’t have a future at the club but neither are close to leaving yet. Like Griezmann, Pjanic, who is drawing interest from Italy, doesn’t want to take a wage cut. Sources say none of the clubs who want the Bosnian midfielder can match his earnings.
Philippe Coutinho, who earns around €24m annually, and Neto (€6.5m) are two other candidates to leave this summer, but they could end up staying. Barca don’t want to take a big hit on the £142m they paid Liverpool for Coutinho in 2018, as revealed by ESPN, and coach Ronald Koeman is wary of letting Neto go with first-choice goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen out injured. — Sam Marsden and Moises Llorens
Chelsea and Juventus keen on ex-Man Utd keeper Romero
The goalkeeper has been training in Argentina while he sorts out his next move after leaving Old Trafford this summer at the end of his contract. The 34-year-old made 61 appearances in six years at Old Trafford.
European heavyweights Chelsea and Juventus are among a number of clubs to have registered their interest in the Argentina international. Spanish side Granada are also monitoring his situation.
Contrary to rumours, sources told ESPN there has not been contact with Leeds United, while a potential move to Everton is viewed as unlikely after they signed 34-year-old Asmir Begovic on a free transfer from Bournemouth.
Despite Romero’s exit, United still have four senior goalkeepers on their books. United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has sanctioned the arrival of Tom Heaton this summer while also handing Lee Grant a new one-year contract. Last season, David De Gea and Dean Henderson competed for the No.1 shirt. — Rob Dawson
Premier League clubs fear COVID chaos
A string of top Premier League clubs are fearing COVID-19 chaos ahead of the new season, sources told ESPN.
Almost all coronavirus restrictions in the United Kingdom were lifted on July 19 — dubbed “Freedom Day” — despite a continued rise in infection numbers.
Premier League players are still being tested twice a week so that infections — asymptomatic or otherwise — will be picked up immediately, and clubs are concerned preseason preparations could be hampered if players are forced to isolate. They could also be left to play games with depleted squads when the new Premier League season begins on Aug. 14.
More than 600,000 people using the National Health Service’s COVID-19 app in England and Wales were sent self-isolation alerts last week. Self-isolation for people fully vaccinated and alerted by the app as close contacts of a positive test is due to be scrapped by Aug. 16. The government is recording around 40,000 new coronavirus cases a day.
Arsenal have already been forced to cancel their preseason trip to Florida because of a “small number” of positive cases within their squad. Manchester City have also had to scrap a friendly with Troyes because of new government rules about returning to the UK from France. The game was due to be played on July 31 but has been cancelled after City were told players and staff would have to quarantine for 10 days on their return to Manchester.
It has left Pep Guardiola’s side with just one game — against Championship side Preston North End on July 27 — before their Community Shield clash against Leicester at Wembley on Aug. 7. — Rob Dawson
Barcelona pull out of H&M deal
Barcelona have withdrawn from a deal with clothing retail company H&M over fears a partnership could damage their reputation in China, a source confirmed to ESPN. Talks were at an advanced stage over a collaboration that would have seen H&M supply leisurewear to be worn by Barca’s first-team players when they travel to matches.
However, as first revealed by Diario ARA, Barca backed out of negotiations when an employee from their Hong Kong office raised concerns about the repercussions the collaboration could create in China.
H&M sales in China have declined and the share price fell sharply in March, when the company raised concerns over alleged human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province, along with other large clothing brands including Nike, Burberry and Adidas. H&M, a Swedish company, said they would not source products from Xinjiang, a cotton-producing region, for that reason.
Asia is viewed as an important market for Barca. The club’s main sponsor is the Japanese company Rakuten, and they also have a partnership with the China Taiping Insurance Group. In 2014, the Catalan club opened an office in Hong Kong to help the club’s growth on the continent. — Sam Marsden and Moises Llorens
Vieira revolution taking shape at Palace
Patrick Vieira’s intention to breathe new life into Crystal Palace has led him to target rising Manchester City star Morgan Rogers, sources told ESPN.
Former New York City FC boss Vieira replaced Roy Hodgson this summer and has set about driving down the age of the Palace squad he inherited. Data compiled by the CIES Football Observatory last season found that at an average age of 29.2, Palace had the oldest squad in the Premier League.
Vieira has reacted by making two eye-catching signings — highly rated defender Marc Guehi (21) from Chelsea for around £18m and midfielder Michael Olise (18) from Championship side Reading. Next up could be 18-year-old Manchester City forward Rogers, who impressed during a loan spell at League One Lincoln City last term. Rogers scored six goals at the third tier side and might find opportunities at City hard to come by in the coming years, with the club pursuing Aston Villa‘s Jack Grealish.
Meanwhile, City will not be signing left-back Nuno Mendes from Sporting Lisbon this summer, sources told ESPN. City have been heavily linked with the 19-year-old in Portugal, but privately the Premier League champions have forcefully denied they hold any interest at all. Sources added their aim this summer is to strengthen their attack. — Rob Dawson
Bomb threat casts shadow over Bale’s World Cup plans
Gareth Bale‘s hopes of a World Cup farewell with Wales at Qatar 2022 face disruption during the next round of qualifiers due to the prospect of qualification rivals Belarus being forced to stage their home games in a neutral country. Next year’s World Cup could be Bale’s last hope of featuring at the tournament, with the Real Madrid winger 33 next year.
Wales, who must secure a top-two finish in Group E to either qualify directly or go through the playoffs, are scheduled to resume their qualifying campaign by facing Belarus in Minsk on Sept 5. But the Football Association of Wales are still waiting for confirmation of a venue due to all flights into Belarus air space being banned by the United Kingdom and European Union following the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk in May, when the Belarussian authorities warned of a bomb threat to the aircraft before proceeding to arrest an opposition activist travelling on the plane once it was on the ground.
Belarus are due to host Wales and Belgium in Minsk during the next round of international fixtures, but sources told ESPN that the games will be moved to a neutral venue if the flight ban is not lifted in the coming weeks.
UEFA forced Belarussian champions Shakhtyor Soligorsk to stage their Champions League first qualifying round home tie against Bulgarian team Ludogorets in Belgrade, Serbia, earlier this month because of the current situation, and sources have said that there is little optimism that the political landscape will change in time for Belarus to face Wales and Belgium in Minsk. — Mark Ogden
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