Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi is one goal away from equaling the Spanish league scoring record. Reuters

Comments from Lionel Messi this week that his future may lie away from Barcelona have prompted a predictable rash of speculation about where the four-time world player of the year could wind up were he to end his 14-year stay with the Catalans. Speaking to Argentine publication Ole during the recent international break, Messi insisted he was only concentrating on the current season, but that anything is possible down the line.

“At the moment, I am living in the present,” he said. “I am thinking about having a great year and winning the trophies we want at Barcelona -- nothing else. Later, we will see. In football, things change all the time. Although I have always said I would like to stay there forever, sometimes everything does not always go as you want.”

After the stir created by Messi’s words, his father Jorge Messi sought to clarify the situation to Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia. “It is clear that if tomorrow the club tells you 'we have this offer, we want to sell you,' he will have to study it,” Jorge Messi said. “But as of today there is no thought about that.”

Given Messi’s relationship with Barcelona stretches back to his arrival from Argentina as a 13-year-old, and the influence he still wields at the club both on and off the pitch, the thought of him leaving remains far-fetched. He also signed a new 20 million euros a year deal with Barcelona just last May that made him the highest-paid player in the world. Yet suspicion of his unhappiness with the regime of president Josep Maria Bartomeu remains. Meanwhile the arrival of Luis Suarez this summer to accompany the capture of Neymar in 2013 could be seen as a sign of Barcelona attempting to move away from their dependence on Messi.

With a release clause of 250 million euros and a massive salary to fulfill, the list of clubs who could afford the 27-year-old does not extend far. Add in the factor of which destinations Messi would actually consider taking his talent to, and the list gets shorter still. Here’s a look at the candidates to have been linked with his signature.

Manchester City
City are perhaps the strongest candidate, given their almost unlimited wealth under the ownership of the Abu Dhabi United Group. The Premier League champions for two of the past three years could offer Messi regular Champions League action as well as the chance to test himself in a competition that, while not having the star power of Spain, is arguably more competitive. Having emerged from relative global obscurity in recent years, City would instantly get a huge boost in their brand awareness around the world thanks to Messi’s arrival. They would also get a player who could potentially deliver them a much-coveted Champions League title. However, City have recently had to reign in their spending due to Financial Fair Play (FFP) restrictions.

Owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, Chelsea would also surely have the funds to do a deal for Messi yet could be hampered by FFP. There would also be question marks over him signing for a team managed by Jose Mourinho. While the arrival of Cesc Fabregas shows that a player with deep connections to Barcelona can prosper under the divisive former Real Madrid coach, there is greater doubt about whether Messi would suit Mourinho’s playing and style and requirement that every player contribute defensively. Messi is king at Barcelona, but in a Mourinho side, no one is bigger than the coach.

Manchester United
This summer showed that Manchester United were now prepared to used their massive revenue streams to invest heavily in the playing squad. Were Messi to become available, they would surely have an interest, as they did when it was thought Cristiano Ronaldo could be brought back to Old Trafford. The fact that Manchester United have just signed a record-breaking deal with Messi’s sportswear partners Adidas could also help any potential deal. Messi would earn the prestige of playing for another of the world’s truly elite clubs, although whether he would trade the sun of Barcelona for the far drearier climate of Manchester is a different matter.

The decision-makers at Arsenal and Barcelona will certainly be familiar with each other, given the frequency of transfers between the clubs in recent years. Usually it has seen Arsenal lose players to Spain, although several Barcelona youngsters having made their way to north London. Indeed Messi is thought to have been close to joining Arsenal along with Cesc Fabregas in 2003. The Daily Express claims Arsenal still hold an interest in Messi. It would, however, require a significant stretching of the imagination to envisage him playing his trade at the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal would have to dramatically abandon their cautious business model to finance both the transfer fee and wages for Messi. Moreover, there is little to suggest Messi would leave Barcelona for a club that has not won a championship for over a decade.

Paris Saint-Germain
Like Manchester City, PSG have the billions in the bank to ensure that they could sign a check for Messi without giving it a second thought. Again, like City, though, they have just been punished by UEFA for violating FFP rules. The sanctions meant that the French champions had to shelve plans to sign Angel di Maria this summer and it would take significant maneuvering to make signing Messi a viable option. Perhaps more problematic, still, would be trying to persuade Messi that he should spend some of his peak years with a team in a league that lags some way behind the best in the world and where he would be scarcely tested on a weekly basis.

Inter Milan
A surprise name, Inter’s candidacy was floated by Catalan publication Sport this week. In the heyday of Serie A in the early- to mid-1990s, it is a deal that it would be easy to envisage taking place, with Inter one of the biggest spending teams around. But the Italian game has fallen on hard times financially in recent years, with Inter among the teams to rein in their spending considerably. Inter have made approaches to sign Messi in the past, but new owner Erick Thohir has shown little indication of spending the type of money it would take to secure the greatest player of this generation.