Manchester City are monitoring Lionel Messi's public fallout with Barcelona and believe they would be in the running if the Argentina star decides to leave Camp Nou, sources have told ESPN.
Messi has been involved in a row with Barcelona sporting director Eric Abidal over his claims players forced the dismissal of coach Ernesto Valverde.
The 32-year-old has a clause in his contract that would allow him to leave the club for free at the end of the season, although the full terms of the clause have not been made clear. Sources have told ESPN that while the clause is acknowledged, there is an acceptance on both sides Messi would not be allowed to leave for a rival, whether domestically or in the Champions League.
The Premier League holders privately admit his departure remains unlikely, but they would be interested if he decides to move either this summer or at the end of his current deal in 2021.
City maintain they would be at the head of the queue for Messi's signature because of his strong relationship with director of football Txiki Begiristain, chief executive Ferran Soriano and manager Pep Guardiola.
Together Messi and Guardiola won the Spanish title three times and the Champions League twice in four seasons at Camp Nou between 2008 and 2012. City are also one of only a handful of clubs who could afford Messi's wages of more £50 million a year.
Abidal, a former teammate of Messi's at Barcelona, said this week "a lot of players were not happy and did not work much" when discussing the sacking of Valverde.
It prompted Messi to hit back in a post on Instagram suggesting the Frenchman should name the players he felt had been involved in undermining the coach.
He wrote: "I honestly do not like to do this kind of thing but I think that everyone has to be responsible for their job and take responsibility for their decision.
"Players for what happens on the field, we are also the first to acknowledge when we don't play well."
Despite the acrimony on Tuesday, sources have told ESPN that Messi assured Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu on Wednesday that he is happy to turn the page on the incident and focus on the club's targets on the pitch between now and the end of the season, when he will move into the final 12 months of his contract.
Earlier on Wednesday, Valverde's replacement Quique Setien was faced with a barrage of questions about how Messi's social media post could affect the team, who are three points behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga and still in the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. He repeated that his only focus was the Athletic Bilbao game in the Copa del Rey on Thursday although he said he had briefly spoken about Tuesday's incident with his squad.
"These things don't affect me," he added. "I try to make sure they don't affect my players, either.
"We spoke about it for one minute earlier but that was all. What interests me is football. At any club of this size, there are problems, but they are not things I can control."
Information from ESPN's Sam Marsden was used in this report.