Man United, Paris Saint-Germain's Pochettino standoff; Maradona's heart at World Cup?

Mauricio Pochettino, one of the contenders for the Manchester United job, is in limbo as PSG plan an overhaul -- ESPN's Insider Notebook has the latest.

Jump to: PR firms' Maradona stunt | Rashford the 'ghost' looks to battle back | US crypto keen on Barca link-up | Mbappe's row with France | Barca's registration worries still linger | Sponsor leaves amid Overmars concern

PSG in flux as Pochettino awaits next move

Mauricio Pochettino could be forced to wait until the end of the season to learn his fate as Paris Saint-Germain coach, sources told ESPN, due to the prospect of wholesale changes at the club which may lead to a new coach and sporting director and the exit of several high-profile players.

Pochettino, 50, is under contract at Parc des Princes until the end of next season, but PSG's round-of-16 Champions League elimination against Real Madrid, having led 2-0 in the tie, has left the former Tottenham manager vulnerable to being dismissed by the club's demanding Qatari owners.

Manchester United's interest in speaking to Pochettino as a potential permanent replacement for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was sacked last November, has complicated the Argentine's situation, with sources telling ESPN that PSG would rather force the Premier League club to pay a sizeable compensation fee for his services than allow him to move to Old Trafford for nothing if his contract in Paris is terminated first.

- Stream LIVE games and replays on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Ogden: PSG's loss, Man United's gain?

With United's owners, the Glazer family, reluctant to spend a substantial sum on a compensation package, sources told ESPN that Pochettino is now at the centre of a standoff between two clubs -- one of which (United) is interested in him but may appoint another candidate and another (PSG) that is increasingly likely to seek to replace him but not before deciding on other areas of the club structure.

PSG's 3-0 defeat at Monaco in Ligue 1 last week has further weakened Pochettino's grip on his job, but sources said the potential departure of sporting director Leonardo and the expected exits of Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria and Mauro Icardi have raised the prospect of Pochettino remaining in charge to oversee a new-look squad next season.

Mbappe is believed to be ready to sign for Real Madrid when his PSG contract expires in the summer and Di Maria is also on the way out as a free agent. Sources said Icardi is another who will move on, while the club may also attempt to offload Sergio Ramos, who has endured an injury-hit spell in Paris since arriving from Real last summer.

If Leonardo is replaced and PSG look to recruit younger players to bolster the squad, sources said Pochettino may be asked to stay in charge to oversee the transition.

But with United this week interviewing Ajax coach Erik ten Hag for the job at Old Trafford, Pochettino's future is becoming a bigger issue at PSG.

United would need PSG's permission to speak to their coach on a formal basis, but if any such request was granted, it would signal the French club's willingness to part company with Pochettino and diminish their prospects of securing a compensation package. -- Mark Ogden

A plan to "take" Maradona to the World Cup?

Lionel Messi could have one last shot at World Cup glory and two companies have a rather curious idea to inspire him and Argentina this winter.

An advertising agency and a public relations company want Maradona's heart to be carried by Argentina's national team to the World Cup, which kicks off in November. The Argentina legend, who won the tournament in 1986, died in November 2020 at the age of 60 from a heart attack.

An advertising agency based in Argentina, Mexico and the United States, and a Buenos Aires-established content production company are behind the bizarre initiative.

"We want to fulfil what we feel would be his wish, we want Maradona's heart to travel with the national team to Qatar," a joint statement from both companies, Bombay and SBO, said.

- Stream European, African World Cup qualifiers on ESPN (U.S. only)

"That he travels with them, that he be in the [training] camp, in a room, on the bus, in the locker room, on the pitch and if God and Diego want, seven games later, next to the long-awaited cup. It's our dream, and we want it to be everyone's dream from today."

Maradona's heart is being kept at the Department of Pathological Anatomy of the Buenos Aires Police, in La Plata, guarded by strong security measures to avoid being stolen by fans. It was removed to be analysed by coroners as part of the postmortem examination.

Bombay executive Javier Mentasti, who has yet to hear back from Maradona's family or the Argentina Football Association regarding the unusual proposal, said: "Can you imagine Diego's heart taking off on the plane with the national team to Qatar, to be in the national team's locker room and in the pregame talks? Perhaps it's a dream but we want to make it a reality."

Argentina are unbeaten in qualifying and have already sealed a ticket to the World Cup. Maradona scored 34 goals in 91 appearances for Argentina and coached the national team for two years, guiding them to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup. -- Adriana Garcia

Rashford looks to raise spirits amid tough season

Marcus Rashford's absence from the England squad for the friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast during this international break has given the Manchester United forward the opportunity to work on his form and fitness at his club, with sources telling ESPN that the 24-year-old's disrupted campaign is largely down to his lack of preseason preparations following a post-Euro 2020 shoulder operation.

But while Rashford has been unable to spend a prolonged period of time working on his conditioning due to United's busy fixture list since returning to first-team action in mid-October, sources said interim manager Ralf Rangnick believes that improving his match fitness is a crucial factor in helping the player stop drifting out of games as he done in recent months.

One source told ESPN that Rashford has developed a habit of "becoming a ghost" during games in which he struggles to contribute and becomes a peripheral figure while the action continues around him.

Rashford has made 16 appearances for United since Rangnick arrived as interim boss in December and has completed 90 minutes on two occasions -- against Norwich and Newcastle in December. He has scored two goals for United during that period.

Rangnick has spoken publicly about Rashford having "abundant talent" and said earlier this month that he would "put all my energy to help him to take the same pathway that other players did in the last three months."

But while Rashford's form has deteriorated to the point that he is now battling to win back his England place ahead of the World Cup later this year, there is a hope at United that his failure to make it into Gareth Southgate's squad this week will ultimately work in his favour by allowing him to work on his game away from the pressure of game time. -- Mark Ogden

Crypto firm seeks Barca link-up

Barcelona are in talks with an American cryptocurrency company to sponsor the sleeves on the club's shirt and, potentially, to help them create their own digital currency, sources told ESPN. Sources added that Barca hope the deal will be worth as much as €13-15 million annually plus add-ons depending on how the team performs.

Barca president Joan Laporta recently revealed plans for the club to develop their own cryptocurrency to help them "survive financially" against clubs owned by big corporations and foreign investors. Negotiations are ongoing with a company that could help them do that at the same time as becoming a sponsor.

The Catalan club turned down several proposals from cryptocurrency companies in favour of signing an agreement with Spotify to become their main sponsor earlier this month. They also cancelled a contract with Ownix, an NFT (non-fungible token) marketplace, last November following the arrest of Moshe Hogeg, who was acting as an advisor for the partnership, on charges of cryptocurrency-based fraud.

- La Liga on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Laporta and his board are seeking ways to turn the club's financial situation around and enable them to be competitive in the transfer market this summer. The four-year partnership with Spotify is worth upwards of €60m per season. In exchange, the Swedish music streaming company will sponsor the men's and women's shirts, the training kits and have the naming rights to Camp Nou. -- Sam Marsden and Moises Llorens

Mbappe's row with France over image rights

Kylian Mbappe is embroiled in an image rights row with France amid his refusal to take part in a sponsorship event, with sources telling ESPN his teammates are also thinking of boycotting activities with certain companies.

Paris Saint-Germain star Mbappe, who won the World Cup in 2018, wants to be in charge of his own image rights and what brands he is aligned with. The 23-year-old does not want to be associated with gambling firms or the fast food industry, sources said, with Les Bleus counting both industries among their sponsors with the likes of BetClic, KFC and Coca-Cola on their roster.

Mbappe refused to leave his room to join the rest of his teammates Tuesday at a prearranged sponsorship event and despite France Football Association President Noel Le Graet attempting to change his mind.

"At one point he was ready to do so. Then he said: 'No, I'm not going down.' What do you want to do?" Le Graet told L'Equipe newspaper Thursday. "There will be a letter from the lawyers which will be sent to him and his lawyer."

When Mbappe was first called up by France coach Didier Deschamps, back in 2017, he signed a national team convention which said he has to honour all sponsor activities when he is on international duty in return for a collective image rights share which brings him and his teammates €25,000 per game. Mbappe gives all his earnings with the national team to charity.

But Mbappe has increasingly become frustrated with the obligations and, along with his lawyer Delphine Verheyden, he has protested against the convention and said he doesn't want to adhere to it anymore. -- Julien Laurens

Barca registration worries linger again

Barcelona have finalised agreements to sign Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen but if the new LaLiga season started tomorrow they would not be able to register either of them, sources confirmed to ESPN.

Milan midfielder Kessie and Chelsea defender Christensen have both agreed to join Barca on free transfers in July when their contracts expire with their respective clubs.

Barca's spending limit has been reduced to minus €144 million by the Spanish league -- the only club with a negative cap -- following the signings of Ferran Torres, Dani Alves, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Adama Traore in January. Therefore, they can only spend 25% of any money they save or bring in on new players.

That means they are not able to inscribe any more players with LaLiga. To do so, they must further reduce a wage bill that has already been reduced by over €150m since Joan Laporta was elected as president in March 2020.

In addition to lowering the output on salaries, Barca can also increase their spending limit by bringing in fees for players, such as Philippe Coutinho, in the summer, or by increasing revenue in other areas, such as their sponsorship deal with Spotify.

Despite the financial position, sources say the club are optimistic they will be in a much better position in the summer, with their attention now turning to strengthening in other positions after reaching agreements with Kessie and Christensen. -- Sam Marsden and Moises Llorens

Overmars arrival spells Antwerp's sponsor exit

Marc Overmars' appointment as technical director at Antwerp following his exit at Eredivisie giants Ajax after inappropriate behaviour has led to a key sponsor ending its partnership with the Belgian club.

Former Arsenal and Barcelona forward Overmars, 48, stepped down from his job at Ajax in February as he admitted to "unacceptable" behaviour after it had emerged he had sent inappropriate messages and photographs to several women who worked there.

Ajax chief executive Edwin van der Sar described the situation as "appalling," and at his unveiling at Antwerp, Overmars said: "What has happened at Ajax won't happen again."

But Antwerp sponsor the Select Group, which specialise in personnel management, will end their association with the club at the end of the season.

"The choice to appoint Mr. Overmars, who was recently accused of repeated transgressive behavior and against whom an independent investigation is currently ongoing in the Netherlands, is directly against the values ​​and norms of our Select Group," the company said.

"We are very surprised by this decision. As a permanent partner and sponsor of RAFC, we were neither consulted nor informed in advance." -- Alex Shaw