Manchester City are counting the cost of the current financial climate and have slashed the budget assigned to lure Lionel Messi away from Barcelona.

The 33-year-old Barca captain could depart his boyhood team in the 2021 off-season after publicly trying, and failing, to force an exit from the Catalan club last August.

A reunion with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City has been the subject of much speculation, but Messi may have to compromise to make the move happen as the Premier League leaders' bargaining power has taken a hit.

 

TOP STORY – CITY FORCED TO LOWER MESSI CONTRACT OFFER

City had already tabled a five-year contract designed to tempt Messi to switch LaLiga for the Premier League – but the numbers have now changed, reports The Sun.

A package worth £600million (€693m) had reportedly been prepared in order to tie the six-time Ballon d'Or winner down for the rest of his career, should he opt to leave Barca at the end of the season.

But The Sun says City will now not match the terms set in August, and the offer has dropped to £430million (€496m), potentially opening the door for Paris Saint-Germain to swoop.

ROUND-UP

Chelsea have already made contact with winger Jonas Hofmann, according to Bild, as the Borussia Monchengladbach exodus threatens to begin following the news that coach Marco Rose is leaving for Borussia Dortmund next season. Hofmann played for Thomas Tuchel at Dortmund.

Milan midfielder Franck Kessie is also in Tuchel's sights, and the Blues could offer Fikayo Tomori to the Serie A giants on a permanent deal as part of a player-plus-cash exchange, reports Il Milanista.

- Everton loanee Moise Kean has netted 14 goals in 25 games for PSG and his parent club will not part with the Italy international for any less than £60m, says Fabrizio Romano, while Juventus want to bring the striker back to Turin, according to Le 10 Sport.

 

Everton 'will demand £70m for Moise Kean transfer' after impressing at PSG https://t.co/3PvjhBQ1rf

— Sun Sport (@SunSport) February 18, 2021

- 'If there are opportunities, I will have a look at them,' is what Wilfried Zaha told the Financial Times Business of Football Summit, reports The Sun. The Crystal Palace winger has been previously linked with Arsenal and Tottenham.

- Gunners midfielder Lucas Torreira, currently on the fringes while on loan at Atletico Madrid, is close to securing a move to Fiorentina for next season, claims Gazzetta Dello Sport.

Manchester City are threatening to run away from the rest of the Premier League and their success has been in a large part down to the previously unsung Ilkay Gundogan.

As they prepare to face Sheffield United, who surprisingly may be relishing a second trip to Manchester in four days, we look at who else is making City tick.

A trio of Pep Guardiola's players feature among our Opta-fuelled fantasy picks, along with high performers from Chelsea, Leicester City, West Ham and Crystal Palace.

EDOUARD MENDY

One thing is for certain: Chelsea's new boss Thomas Tuchel will know all about Mendy. Tuchel's old Paris Saint-Germain side faced Mendy twice in Ligue 1 during the goalkeeper's Reims days, scoring four the first time but just once second time around in a shock defeat. Last season saw Mendy help Rennes finish third in the French top flight.

The goalkeeper conceded just three times in his first eight Premier League games for Chelsea but has shipped 11 in eight matches since that bright start.

Clean sheets in two of his past three league games, however, suggest Mendy and the Chelsea defence are getting their act together.

Ahead of a home clash with Burnley, only one goalkeeper - City's Ederson (61 per cent) - has kept a higher share of clean sheets in the Premier League this season than Tuchel's new number one, with Mendy avoiding conceding in eight of his 16 appearances.

JOAO CANCELO

Move over Andy Robertson, there's a new defensive assist king in town. City's Cancelo has created more chances from open play than any defender in the Premier League this season after setting up 30 opportunities.

Admittedly, Robertson is second on that list after making 27 chances for Liverpool team-mates, but Cancelo has played four fewer games than the Scot.

With City facing the Blades at the Etihad Stadium this weekend, the flying full-back will doubtless be eyeing up more forward missions.

RUBEN DIAS

If City are to succeed where neighbours Manchester United failed, by keeping out the Blades, then Dias may have a big role to play.

The Portuguese centre-back has achieved more clean sheets than any other Premier League defender this season, playing in 10 games where City have had shutouts.

He is yet to score but has an xG value of 1.4, suggesting he is getting into positions from where he might soon be due a goal.

Only James Tarkowski (1.62) and Adam Webster (1.66) have a higher xG value without scoring among Premier League defenders this season.

HARVEY BARNES

Leicester winger Barnes is enjoying a purple patch after scoring three times and claiming two assists in his past six Premier League games.

Perhaps back him while he's hot as Leicester host Leeds United on Sunday.

Barnes has six goals and three assists in the top flight this season, while he also scored six and assisted eight goals across the previous Premier League campaign.

ILKAY GUNDOGAN

It seemed unlikely that Gundogan would be the man to step up and be City's top scorer in the absence of Sergio Aguero this season.

Despite Aguero having been rarely available, the name of Gundogan at the top of City's list of Premier League top scorers might mystify many.

But his seven goals have come from some exhilarating performances, and all have come in his past eight league games. This weekend he could become the first German player to score in four consecutive Premier League appearances.

WILFRIED ZAHA

Where would Palace be without Zaha? The Championship seems a likely answer to that, as again his goals and attacking drive are propping up their campaign.

Palace are suffering at the moment, though, having won just one of their past nine league matches, so Saturday's home game with Wolves would be a good moment for Zaha to fire.

He has nine goals in 17 Premier League appearances this season – only in 2018-19, when he netted 10 times, has he managed more in a single campaign in the competition.

MICHAIL ANTONIO

West Ham are challenging for Champions League football. Those eight words are a lot to take in, but Antonio has had a big say in their success this season.

He has five goals in 12 games in the Premier League and two goals and an assist in his past three outings ahead of a home clash with Liverpool, who sit just behind the Hammers.

Antonio enjoys facing Liverpool, having scored more goals against the Reds than any other West Ham player in the Premier League era. His four goals in six appearances against the reigning champions shows Antonio should not be overawed by Sunday's London Stadium occasion.

Could he rub salt into Liverpool's wounds as Jurgen Klopp's side, and their vulnerable defence, wonder where their title challenge has gone to?

Unai Emery has blamed bad decisions made by the club for his Arsenal exit and confirmed he favoured a move for Wilfried Zaha over Nicolas Pepe in his final season.

The 49-year-old spent 18 months in charge at Emirates Stadium before being sacked in November 2019 and subsequently replaced by Mikel Arteta.

He guided Arsenal to the Europa League final and a fifth-place finish in the Premier League in what proved to be his only full season in charge.

Arsenal spent a club-record £72million to bring in Pepe from Lille ahead of 2019-20, but Emery felt the Gunners should have instead moved for fellow Ivory Coast international Zaha.

"I usually want to sign first the players I know," he told Football.London. "When we played against Crystal Palace, Zaha showed he was a very good player.

"I also think Nicolas Pepe is a very good player. When you make the decision you have to decide how easy the adaption will be of some players.

"I was thinking the adaption was easier for Zaha because he was playing in the Premier League and you didn't know exactly how fast Nicolas Pepe can adapt to the Premier League because I know you can need some time to adapt.

"I was thinking at this time that the adaption of Zaha was probably easier and faster than Pepe."

Pepe has struggled in his year and a half with Arsenal, scoring and assisting a combined 13 goals in 42 Premier League appearances.

That compares to 17 goal involvements for Zaha across the same period in 11 more games, while the Palace winger also completes more dribbles per 90 minutes (3.68 compared to 2.92) and plays more passes into the final third (2.2 to 2).

Pepe's inability to make an impact on games was one of the contributing factors in Emery's exit and the Spaniard rued some of the decisions made during his second season in charge, though he reflects on his time in north London fondly.

"I was in Arsenal for a year and a half and first year I think was a very good season," he said.

"We achieved the Europa League final, we were at the last moment with the possibility to be in the top four and I think last year when I was there we recovered a lot of confidence for the club and the fans and for the players and I think we finished well that season.

"I was very happy, enjoying it and working very well. The club supported me and I was happy with the players, the atmosphere and the supporters – only the second six months of the second year when I finished in November I think we made some decisions not good for the club, but not for me, the decisions of the club.

"When the results were a little bit bad the situation changed but my first year in Arsenal I remember a lot of positive things, on the sidelines the same. I enjoyed being a coach of Arsenal and I'm very grateful for that moment I had in Arsenal.

"For me it's not negative, it was a positive experience and after I left the club the first month was not easy for me because I was running out of things [to do] but now I am very grateful to the owners, the club, the supporters, the players, the workers in Colney. 

"I now only remember the very good things there and the first year for me was a very good performance for us.

"I worked well with Mr [Stan] Kroenke, Raul [Sanllehi], [Ivan] Gazidis during the first months there. The results towards the end were the main problem but for me it was a positive experience and I'm grateful to Arsenal for the opportunity.

"This is football. Now I want the best for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta, the supporters and everyone at the club."

Another player Emery failed to get the most out of is Mesut Ozil, who has since been completely frozen out of the picture by Arteta and looks set to leave Arsenal this month.

Only Kevin De Bruyne (75), David Silva (63) and Christian Eriksen (62) have provided more Premier League assists than Ozil's 54 since the start of 2013-14, but the German was regularly overlooked for selection.

Emery has defended his treatment of Ozil, however, by insisting he gave the playmaker all the guidance he could.

"I worked for one and a half years with Mesut and tried to help him, support him and achieve the performances for the team with him," said Emery, who was appointed as Villarreal head coach last July.

"Now I don't know what the problems are as I am very concentrated and focused with Villarreal. I follow every Arsenal match but I don't know what the problems are with the team or the players.

"I can only speak about Mesut Ozil when I was with him there and I tried to achieve the best performances with him."

Roy Hodgson is unsurprised by the transfer speculation around Wilfried Zaha, but he expects the star to stay at Crystal Palace.

Zaha is again linked with a move away from Palace amid reported interest from Milan and Paris Saint-Germain.

The 28-year-old has scored eight goals and provided two assists in 14 Premier League games this season.

Palace manager Hodgson said he had grown used to talk about Zaha, who is contracted at the club until 2023.

"It's pure speculation. There's been so much speculation regarding Wilf over the years that these days I tend to let those concerns just disappear, as they often do," he told a news conference.

"Wilf's good, there's no doubt about that, it doesn't surprise me that there would be clubs out there that would like to sign him, but a lot of things have to be in place before a player leaves a club and joins a new one.

"I'm just happy at the moment that Wilf is playing as he is, showing the discipline, the concentration, his passion for football and for the club that he's been showing. I just work on the basis that until I'm given a reason otherwise I expect that to keep going."

Of players to have scored at least five Premier League goals this season, Zaha's big chance conversion percentage of 62.5 ranks eighth – slightly better than the likes of Jamie Vardy (61.1) and Harry Kane (60).

Palace are 15th in the table ahead of hosting Sheffield United on Saturday.

There is no let-up in the Premier League's hectic schedule this weekend as leaders Liverpool look to hold off the threat of Manchester United, who are lurking with intent in second place.

Jurgen Klopp's side face a tough test away at Southampton, who will be led by former Reds striker Danny Ings.

The Saints' main man is joined by Wilfried Zaha and Harvey Barnes in our Opta-powered Premier League fantasy picks for what promises to be another enthralling matchweek.


NICK POPE

Burnley have won three of their previous five Premier League games, with goalkeeper Pope central to their success.

Since the beginning of November, the England international has the competition's highest save percentage at 91 per cent.

No goalkeeper has kept more clean sheets than his five in that period, either. Good luck finding a way past him, Fulham.

JOHN STONES

Stones' Manchester City career looked to be over ahead of the 2020-21 campaign, but the England man has enjoyed a renaissance of late.

The 26-year-old has started six games for the club in the Premier League this season – four of which came in December – with City keeping clean sheets in five of those appearances and conceding just one goal in the other.

That compares to just two clean sheets and 11 goals conceded when he has not played. Up next for City and Stones? A visit to Chelsea.

BEN CHILWELL

Trying to get the better of Stones will be Chelsea left-back Chilwell, who has arguably been the most successful of Frank Lamaprd's signings ahead of the 2020-21 campaign.

No defender has been involved in more goals (two scored, four assisted) than the former Leicester City left-back, with only Liverpool's Andy Robertson registering more assists (five).

Only two defenders have scored more goals: Southampton's Jannik Vestergaard and Chilwell's Chelsea team-mate Kurt Zouma.

GYLFI SIGURDSSON 

Like Stones, Sigurdsson has been brought in from the cold in recent weeks by Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti.

He is up against one of his favourite opponents next so expect the Iceland international to get some points on the board.

Sigurdsson has been involved in more Premier League goals against West Ham for Everton than any other opponent (two goals, two assists), scoring or assisting in each of his four appearances for the Toffees against the Hammers.

WILFRIED ZAHA

It has not been a stellar start to the season for Crystal Palace, who face rock-bottom Sheffield United on Saturday, but their talismanic forward has been in fine form.

Zaha has scored eight goals in 14 Premier League appearances this season, twice as many as in the 2019-20 campaign (four in 38 appearances).

Indeed, Zaha is looking to reach double figures in a top-flight campaign for only the second time in his career, also doing so in 2018-19 (10 goals in 34 games).

HARVEY BARNES

Leicester winger Barnes has been attracting admiring glances from some of the Premier League’s biggest clubs this season and it is not hard to see why.

The 23-year-old, who takes on Newcastle United next, has scored eight goals in 21 appearances in all competitions in 2020-21, one more than he did in 42 games last term.

Only in 2018-19 (10) has the midfielder netted more goals in all competitions across a single campaign.

DANNY INGS

Ings faces off against former club Liverpool on Monday looking to continue his superb form over the past two years.

Since Ralph Hasenhuttl took charge of Southampton in December 2018, Ings has been directly involved in 38 goals in the Premier League (31 scored, seven assisted).

That is 16 more than James Ward-Prowse, who has the next most at the club with 22 goal involvements in the same period.

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