Barcelona's pursuit of PSG's Marco Verratti could require record transfer fee
It's obvious why Barcelona want Marco Verratti. While accolades have poured in for the front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, the influence of the midfield has begun to wane. To the extreme that in some games last season -- including against Verratti's Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes in February -- it was almost non-existent.
"Verratti was truly extraordinary," Xavi Hernandez said after his former side's 4-0 humiliation in Paris. "He really defeated Barcelona's pressing. When [Sergio] Busquets went to put him under pressure, he knew what to do each time."
Xavi won't have been surprised by Verratti's performance, though. In 2015 he was already wishing him to Barca, praising his vision, his passing and his ability to keep hold of the ball. Another of the modern game's great midfielders, Andrea Pirlo, is also a huge fan.
"After [that Barca game] I said to him in a message: 'You're the No. 1 now because I'm at the end of my career,'" the New York City player revealed. "He is such a great player. He is the future of Italian and European football for the next 10 years."
It's obvious, then, why Verratti is seen as the man to breathe life into Barca's midfield. A midfield which has not reinvigorated itself following the loss of peak Xavi, with question marks now even hung over 33-year-old Andres Iniesta's head. What was once Europe's best midfield duo is, sadly, no longer and Barca's succession plan is under the spotlight.
So far, everything they've tried hasn't quite worked. Ivan Rakitic deserves credit for how he's adapted his game to fit in and help Messi, Suarez and Neymar but his role is often different than that expected of a Barcelona midfielder. The jury is still out on Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez, Rafinha and Sergi Roberto (as a midfielder), but all are, at least, good squad players.
Verratti, though, is not a good squad player. He's the player to lead the rebuild of Barca's midfield, along with Sergio Busquets and, perhaps, Dani Ceballos, who the club are targeting from Real Betis -- although, available for his €15 million release clause, they're in a scrap with Real Madrid for his signature.
Compared to Xavi and Pirlo, Verratti does possess many of their attributes. While he ticks the boxes for passing and keeping the ball, there's also a tenacity about him. He does the simple stuff and the pretty stuff, but he also digs in and gets his hands dirty. His feet are good, too, and on many occasions he's wormed his way out of a boxed-off situation.
It's also obvious, then, why PSG do not want to lose a player they want to build a team around. Which is perhaps why Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu decided to break club procedure and speak publicly about Verratti on Friday. Upping the ante against the French club's reluctance to sell, he not only confirmed Barca's interest but also revealed the player himself is set on a move to the Camp Nou.
Meanwhile, in Italy, Verratti's agent Donato Di Campli accused PSG of blocking the transfer out of spite.
"Barca have been after Marco for at least a year, but the situation has escalated in recent days," he said. "Marco knows perfectly what his contractual obligations to PSG are, but it's natural that he is attracted by the prospect of playing for Barcelona. Who wouldn't be at the age of 24 in the season which runs up to the World Cup?"
The timing of Bartomeu and Di Campli's comments suggest a co-ordinated attack, the next step in a plan to force PSG to sell. Except PSG have never given in to bullying tactics before and, as Bartomeu himself lamented, players in France have no release clauses in their contracts.
So how far do Barca push it? How far can they push it? Even if PSG do, reluctantly, agree to sit down at the table, at what price do they pull out of a deal? Is €100 million too much? €120m? Given the Ligue 1 club's stance, Barca might have to break the world record for a transfer fee if they really want to land Verratti.
"What we could not do is sign a player for far more than their market value," Bartomeu added in a separate interview with Mundo Deportivo. "It's as if you bought a house for way more than it was worth on the market. Your wife would go mad.
"As of today, it's been impossible [to sign Verratti], but the market is open until Aug. 31. I can't guarantee anything because it depends on the market and how negotiations go. As of today, though, PSG do not want to negotiate."
Barca return for preseason training on July 12 and head to the United States a week later to take part in the International Champions Cup. They're still no closer to landing their top summer transfer target, but the feeling is that things are just getting started.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.