The domestic seasons around Europe come to a close this weekend, save for some promotion and relegation playoffs, and with that comes the next matter of business: transfer season.
This summer's transfer market is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing ones in some time due to the volume of high-end, brand-name talent that could be on the move. The one wild card that remains is spending power. The pandemic's impact on clubs' bottom lines and budgets remains an issue for the vast majority of clubs—but not all. Chelsea's $300 million spending spree last summer was testament to that. To that end, though, if clubs are looking to sell certain players who may otherwise fetch outrageously high fees, are they willing to accept a bit less, knowing that suitors dipping into nine figures on a single player right now may not be the savviest business move?
There are a lot of factors to consider, but one certainty is that the next few months won't be dull. Here are some of the biggest names at the center of the sagas that'll be sorted in that time—either with blockbuster moves or with significant returns to the clubs where they currently star:
Lionel Messi, Barcelona
Messi's Barcelona contract expires after the club's season ends, putting one of the greatest players of all time up for grabs—well, for those who are able to afford his exorbitant wages, at least. A return to Barcelona is possible as well, though, even after a late-season collapse that president Joan Laporta called "incomprehensible" and even after the comments he made last summer that made it seem like there really would be a next chapter for his club career.
Changes are coming one way or another—manager Ronald Koeman spending a second season on the bench seems unlikely at this point—and despite budgetary restrictions, the club is still talking up the potential for some major moves that could convince Messi that staying put is as good as any of his other alternatives.
Compatriot Sergio Agüero and Memphis Depay are reportedly being lined up as free transfers, which, on paper, adds a potential friendly face for Messi and some more firepower to Barcelona's attack—while also creating a logjam. Should Ansu Fati return from the knee injury that derailed his season to join Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho, Pedri and Trincão, there would be a significant squad imbalance, unless some of those parts were sold off.
It's going to be a busy summer at Camp Nou. Whether Messi returns there is the biggest question of them all.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus
Most signs point to Cristiano Ronaldo remaining at Juventus, at least if the club and his agent are to be believed at this juncture. But what if Juventus fails to reach the Champions League? Entering its season finale, that's a very real possibility, and at this stage in his career, Ronaldo is not going to get up for Thursdays in the Europa League. Nor will Juventus be able to spend freely without the Champions League revenue to support it.
Even if Juventus squeaks into the top four, there's still reason to believe it's a make-or-break summer for him in Turin. There's one more season to run on Ronaldo's contract. That means that it's either time to extend him or send him elsewhere and recoup whatever value the club can for a 36-year-old who can still score buckets of goals but may no longer be the same dominant force he has been. The Champions League title Juventus envisioned when prying him from Real Madrid never came to fruition, and the club doesn't seem to be particularly close to cracking that top tier. So where could he go? His agent downplayed Ronaldo's mother's recent comment about a sensational return to Sporting in his native Portugal, while romantic returns to Man United and Real Madrid have been touted as possibilities. As is the case with any player of his ilk, there's only a select few who can afford him, and he'll surely dictate his next stop, if there is one.
Harry Kane, Tottenham
Kane evidently wants out of Tottenham, but it's not necessarily up to him. He still has three years to run on his contract, and the fee that the club will demand for a player of his age (and with his injury record) might give some purported suitors some pause, especially when that money can be used on a younger player with more prime years left. Kane hasn't exactly been keeping coy, putting Man City on notice with comments he made regarding Kevin De Bruyne.
“When I watch De Bruyne play, he’s a special, special player and some of the balls I see him put in for City are just a striker’s dream if I’m honest,” Kane said in an interview with Gary Neville. “He’s an outstanding player with the ball, off the ball, pressing, but his delivery is as good as I’ve ever seen to be honest.”
It's not quite "come get me!" But it's not far off, either. And with Agüero leaving the club and City in the market for a star striker, Kane would fit the bill, should Tottenham choose to sell to the reigning Premier League champion.
Crosstown Man United is another obvious candidate to sign him, and given the affinity Kane has for Tom Brady (a big NFL fan, he named his dogs after Brady and Russell Wilson), the Glazers would be crazy to not use their other chief asset, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as a recruiting tool. Even after re-signing Edinson Cavani, Man United could use a leading center forward to build around for years to come, and he'd be quite the olive branch to present a fan base that has grown weary of the club's ownership.
Kylian Mbappé, PSG
PSG has been clear about its intentions to extend Mbappé for the long haul and has appeared confident in being able to do so. Neymar signing on through 2025 is a statement of the club's intent, and there's every reason to believe that with unlimited spending power, Mauricio Pochettino at the helm and a squad that's made the Champions League final and semifinals in consecutive seasons, that PSG could be a consistent player on the European stage for years to come. Mbappé has already won a World Cup for his country, but winning European titles for his city, one would think, would have tremendous allure.
That said, so does the prospect of playing in another country, in another league, for another world power. The entirety of Mbappé's club career has taken place in Ligue 1, and while France's title race is actually intriguing this season, it's far from being considered the continent's top league. Real Madrid has always seemed like his natural next step if there is one to take—though Zinedine Zidane's future at the club could wind up dictating how attractive the Spanish capital winds up being as an option. Financing—sensing a theme here?—is also an issue, with Madrid undergoing renovations to the Bernabeu and being uncharacteristically tight with its spending in recent seasons. Mbappé, 22, has only one more year to run on his contract, so it's either stay on or move on.
Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund
If Mbappé isn't the world's most in-demand player, then it's Haaland, the 20-year-old Norwegian goal machine who possesses the pace, power and finesse of a complete and devastating striker.
Dortmund's brain trust has been adamant that Haaland won't be sold this summer, and the club rallying to clinch a place in next season's Champions League at the very least provides the competitive environment that he would be seeking. But with a reported release clause kicking in at the end of next season at a severely discounted rate compared to what he's worth on the open market, would Dortmund risk missing out on the biggest possible payday? If its CEO and sporting director are to be believed, then the answer is yes, and that Haaland, whose contract runs through June 2024, will stay.
Jadon Sancho, Borussia Dortmund
Dortmund's "other" in-demand young star arguably carried more value after last season, but he's still bound to command a giant fee given his age (21), talent and potential. Man United and Chelsea are the two most-linked suitors for Sancho, who came through the Watford and Man City systems before heading to the Bundesliga for more playing opportunities. That paid off for him, and it could very well pay off for his German club—especially if he goes on to have a strong Euros for England.
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