In this week's ESPN Insider Notebook, Barcelona look to Sergio Aguero should they fail to keep Lionel Messi. PLUS: Chelsea feel 'vindicated' over Frank Lampard sacking.
Aguero Barca's fall-back if Messi leaves
Messi has yet to give any indication of a willingness to commit to a new contract and will be a free agent on June 30. Joan Laporta's election as Barca president, with his candidacy led on the face that his personal relationship with the Argentina international would help persuade him to stay. Reports in Argentina had suggested Laporta was looking to pair Aguero and Messi, but sources told ESPN the ex-Atletico Madrid striker is considered a potential replacement should the club's record goal scorer not extend his contract.
For Messi, a move to City, where he would be reunited with former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, remains a strong possibility, sources have told ESPN. It would force Barca to consider reinforcements to fill the huge gap that Messi would leave.
Aguero was meant to play a key role in persuading Messi to move to Manchester and reject a new deal at Barca or a lucrative transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, according to ESPN sources, as the pair are close friends. But the 32-year-old is expected to leave the Etihad as a free agent at the end of the season after he struggled to regain a starting position in the team following injury problems and a spell on the sidelines with COVID-19. Aguero has started just three Premier League games all season and has to score in the league for Guardiola's team this campaign.
Meanwhile, Aguero isn't the only striker on Barca's list should they lose Messi, as the Catalans are among the sides interested in Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland, according to ESPN sources. The difficult financial situation at the club, though -- the debt has risen to €1 billion -- is likely to leave them as outsiders in the race to sign the Norway forward.
Memphis Depay, whose contract at Lyon expires at the end of this season, is rated highly by Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman, and the former Manchester United player would be available on a free transfer, like Aguero.
But sources told ESPN that Barcelona have been made aware of Aguero's likely availability this summer and his willingness to return to Spain 10 years after leaving Atletico for City.
With Barcelona needing to raise funds with player sales this summer, regardless of whether Messi stays or goes, the club may need to sign free agents Depay and Aguero rather than spend heavily on the likes of Haaland.
The departures of Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann would help boost Barcelona's finances, but with the transfer market heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic, sources have said that there are few takers. -- Mark Ogden
Tuchel proving Chelsea bosses right in sacking Lampard
Thomas Tuchel's instant impact as Chelsea manager has left senior figures at Stamford Bridge feeling "vindicated" by the decision to sack Frank Lampard, sources told ESPN.
The decision to sack Lampard, Chelsea's record goal scorer, after an underwhelming start to the campaign following a £220 million spending spree, was met with heavy criticism. Former Chelsea midfielder Joe Cole described Lampard's sacking as a "mistake," while Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp claimed it was "harsh" and Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers had suggested the former midfielder needed more time to succeed in the job.
Since replacing Lampard in January with Chelsea sitting in ninth position -- five points adrift of the top four -- Tuchel has inspired a dramatic turnaround at the club and led the team on an 11-game unbeaten run in all competitions.
Chelsea go into Saturday's Premier League clash with Leeds United at Elland Road aiming to move five points clear of West Ham United in fourth position, with confidence now high at Stamford Bridge that a top-four finish and Champions League qualification will be secured.
"It shows we know what we are doing," one source at the club told ESPN after Chelsea consolidated fourth position with a 2-0 win at home to Everton on Monday. Although results have improved under Tuchel, the German's impact on the training pitch and around the club have been the factors that have most impressed the Chelsea decision-makers.
Tuchel, formerly of Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain, arrived at Chelsea with a reputation of being demanding of both his players and his bosses. But his insistence on high standards has been welcomed at all levels so far.
Sources have told ESPN that the players have embraced Tuchel's highly tactical approach and his vocal personality during games, believing it has given the team the structure and certainty it lacked under Lampard, citing the upturn in performances in players such as Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Marcos Alonso -- all of whom struggled under Lampard -- as proof of Tuchel's impact. -- Mark Ogden
Man Utd, Real Madrid tracking Villarreal's Torres
The Premier League giants are prioritising the signing of a central defender, and ESPN reported last month that Sevilla's Jules Kounde, Aston Villa's Tyrone Mings, Braga's David Carmo and long-term target Raphael Varane are all options being considered.
Multiple sources have told ESPN that United have added Torres to the list, believing the 6-foot-3 defender would be well-suited to the Premier League. Madrid, who are also chasing the signing of David Alaba on a free transfer, have been following Torres for some time, with doubts over the future of captain Sergio Ramos, who is out of contract this summer.
Sources told ESPN that Madrid contacted Torres several months ago to gauge his interest in a move this summer, while United have also been in touch in recent weeks. Torres has a €65m buyout clause at Villarreal and would be available for less only if Unai Emery's team -- seventh in La Liga -- fail to qualify for European football. The clause had been €50m but rose under the terms of Torres' contract after he made his Spain debut in November.
Torres was a target for Manchester City last summer before they signed Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, and Barcelona were also interested before the emergence of Ronald Araujo and the likely arrival of Eric Garcia. -- Rodrigo Faez and Alex Kirkland
Gab & Juls don't want to see Ilaix Moriba compared to anyone
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens pump the brakes on comparisons between Barca's Ilaix Moriba and Paul Pogba.
Molde's latest star could be Haaland's cousin
Norwegian club Molde may have unearthed another Erling Haaland in the shape of Albert Braut Tjaland -- the Borussia Dortmund forward's cousin.
Haaland, 20, began his senior career under the management of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Molde, where he scored 20 goals in 50 appearances before moving to FC Salzburg in January 2019.
The Norway international has since enjoyed a meteoric rise, scoring regularly in the Champions League with Salzburg before joining Dortmund in January 2020, becoming the youngest player ever to reach 20 goals in Europe's premier competition.
Although Haaland is now the top target for Europe's biggest clubs this summer, his 17-year-old cousin Tjaland could offer a cut-price alternative if he continues his progress at the Norwegian side.
Tjaland is yet to make his senior debut. The centre-forward has scored 64 goals in 37 games for the club's youth team, having been signed as a 16-year-old last summer following 40 goals in 31 appearances for Bryne FK's under-19 team.
Sources close to Haaland have told ESPN that Tjaland is "still raw, but talented," with the player expected to have his potential soon tested by elevation to Molde's first-team squad when the 2021 Eliteserien kicks off later this year. -- Mark Ogden.
Valencia woes edge Gaya toward Europe's elite
A host of European clubs are monitoring the precarious financial and ownership situation at Valencia, with the Spanish giants possibly set for some major sales this summer.
After raising around €100m at the end of the last season, Valencia are braced for more departures as they look to raise €50m in player sales with left-back Jose Gaya considered one of their most valuable players.
Gaya isn't short of admirers with Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and several Premier League clubs following his progress closely. Gaya has remained loyal to his boyhood club Valencia and is keen to remain, but if their financial predicament does not improve he may need to exit.
One of the key reasons for him staying so far has been a desire to make Luis Enrique's Euro 2020 Spain squad, with regular football at Valencia viewed as an important reason to stay.
Sources have told ESPN that Valencia would look for a minimum fee of €30-40m should they sell, though they remain reluctant to lose a player who has remained loyal to them and forms a key part of the squad. Valencia already turned down two offers for the 25-year-old last summer.
An interesting aspect to follow could be that of Barca's interest, with former Valencia general manager Mateu Alemany set to join the Catalan outfit as part of new President Joan Laporta's team. It was Alemany who negotiated Gaya's last contract at Valencia and who rates the player very highly. Jordi Alba's return to form would make any move difficult, however.
Perhaps the most significant factor in Gaya's future could be attempts of a takeover at the club, with the Crown Prince of Johor interested in buying a significant amount of shares. Should he succeed, he would likely look to inject cash right away and alleviate the need for sales. -- David Cartlidge
Laurens tears into Marseille's 'embarrassing' French Cup exit
Julien Laurens can barely come to terms with Marseille's French Cup loss at fourth-tier Canet Roussillon.
Barca starlet Ilaix to control clause
Ilaix Moriba does not want Barcelona to raise his buyout clause above €150 million as he wants to remain in control of his own future, sources have told ESPN.
Ilaix, 18, is out of contract in 2022, with his terms including a €100m buyout clause. Barca want to extend his deal and increase the clause following his performances for the first team since the turn of the year.
The midfielder became the highest-paid player in the history of the club's academy when he last renewed in 2019 but he has since seen friend and teammate Ansu Fati, also 18, sign a bigger contract. Therefore, his agency, Stellar Group, hope to land a similar deal.
As part of the negotiations, an increased buyout clause will also have to be agreed upon. Ilaix and his representatives are reluctant for it to be raised above €150m, while Barca are keen to include a much more prohibitive fee to protect themselves against losing the youngster.
Sources told ESPN that the player, who joined La Masia as a 7-year-old, is keen to stay at Camp Nou. He has already made an impression on the dressing room, and teammate Lionel Messi is especially fond of him.
Ilaix made his first-team debut in the Copa del Rey in January and has appeared in each of Barca's last four games. He came off the bench as the Blaugrana came from behind to make the final of the cup last week, beating Sevilla 3-0, scored against Osasuna at the weekend and made his Champions League debut against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.
Beyond Ilaix, new president Joan Laporta has a number of contract situations to sort out. Defender Oscar Mingueza, like Messi, is out of contract this summer, while Sergi Roberto, Ousmane Dembele, Fati, Pedri and Konrad de la Fuente all have deals until 2022.
Barca have an option to extend Ansu, Pedri and Konrad's terms by an additional two years, while ESPN have previously revealed the club's desire to extend Dembele's deal. -- Moises Llorens and Sam Marsden
Marseille humiliated on and off pitch
Marseille's disastrous campaign hit a new low when they were not just eliminated from the French Cup by semipro side Canet-Roussillon, but humiliated on and off the pitch.
It's been a difficult season for the club with an attack on the training ground by their own Ultras, a protest against former president Jacques-Henri Eyraud, which eventually led to his sacking, ex-manager Andre Villas-Boas offering his resignation during a news conference and terrible results on the pitch, which saw them lose five of their six Champions League group matches, while they sit eighth in Ligue 1.
- Laurens: Why fans invaded Marseille training ground
Yet things got worse still with their abysmal cup exit. Fourth-tier side Canet, which had played only three games in the last three months because their league has been suspended because of COVID-19, didn't just beat Marseille, they rubbed their noses in their 2-1 success.
First, Canet's mascot held up a River Plate shirt in an attempt to troll Marseille's Dario Benedetto, who was part of the Boca Juniors side which lost to their fierce rivals in the infamous 2018 Copa Libertadores final. Then, when Paris Saint-Germain fan Yohann Boi scored the winner for Canet, he celebrated doing the Moise Kean's juggling dance.
Marseille thought the grass at the Gilbert-Brutus Stadium was too high and too dry so they asked for it to be cut and watered before kick off, but their request was rejected. -- Julien Laurens
Pereira unlikely to return to Old Trafford
Pereira has made 22 appearances after moving to Italy on loan in the summer. Lazio, who are covering the 25-year-old's wages this season, have an option to make the move permanent but are yet to inform United of their plans.
Sources have told ESPN that even if the Serie A side decide against signing Pereira, the Brazilian would seek another move away from Old Trafford fearing that he would not get the opportunities to force his way into the team at United because he is competing for a place with Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek.
Pereira has made 75 first team appearances but his spell at the club has also included three loan spells and he is keen to find regular game-time. He, has a minimum of two years left on the contract he signed in 2019 and United would look to collect a fee before allowing him to leave permanently.
Should Lazio turn down the chance to sign him, sources have told ESPN Pereira would be happy to stay in Italy with with Napoli and Atalanta interested. But he will be expected back at United for the start of preseason training in July if no transfer materialises. -- Rob Dawson