Ten stars running out of time to make their last big move

Matt Stead

Mo Salah may be the fall guy if Liverpool reinvent their attacking wheel. Many others are considering their last moves.

10) N’Golo Kante
Claude Makelele joined Chelsea at 30 and stayed for five years. His supposed successor would be the same age upon his departure after the same amount of time were he to exit Stamford Bridge next summer.

It is not outside the realms of possibility that N’Golo Kante leaves earlier. His contract runs until 2023 so Chelsea’s asset is protected, but he looks increasingly like a jigsaw piece that simply doesn’t fit Frank Lampard’s puzzle. His 16 Premier League starts have returned a record of W5 D4 L7 F21 A22, and Fikayo Tomori is one of the nine teammates to have played more often this season. If that purported France homecoming is to materialise at either PSG or Lyon, this might be the final year Chelsea come close to breaking even on their bargainous £30m investment.


9) James Rodriguez
Porto signed James Rodriguez for around £4m a week before he turned 19, Monaco bought him for £38.5m at 21 and Real Madrid made him the fourth-most expensive player in the world for almost twice the price little over a year later. The linear progression from wunderkind to Galactico has taken a nosedive of late.

Rodriguez will never again reach those same post-2014 World Cup heights. The six-year contract he signed at the Berbabeu after his exploits for Colombia was extended when he was sent out on loan for a second spell at Bayern Munich in summer 2018, with the Germans not tempted into a permanent deal despite some positive performances across two seasons. Real will do the best they can to drum up interest and avoid losing the Colombian for free at his assumed peak age of 28, with interest from Arsenal, Everton and Manchester United about the best outcome they could hope for.


8) Philippe Coutinho
Spanish superclubs seem to see Bayern as an acceptable service station on the road to an expensive transfer mea culpa. Philippe Coutinho, much like Rodriguez, enjoyed a positive first season in relative terms, lifting La Liga and the Copa del Rey within a matter of months of his arrival. But the Brazilian has never looked a natural fit at the Nou Camp.

There is time to fully restore a slightly tainted reputation. Coutinho turns 28 in June and built up more than enough stock over four and a half years at Liverpool to absorb a disappointing period. Bayern, again, have rarely dealt with the sort of money required to end his time at Barca for good; Chelsea would make sense on a few different levels.


7) Paul Pogba
Despite a recent concerted effort to find his own voice and strike the right tone, the bridges Paul Pogba is trying to rebuild to Manchester United are perennially susceptible to collapse. Mino Raiola has been refreshingly quiet by his standards in recent weeks, leaving his client free to speak vague platitudes about his desire to “come back and do well” upon his return from injury.

There does seem to be a little too much water under that bridge he is belatedly constructing. Bruno Fernandes has helped United establish a new identity and while Pogba would undoubtedly be an asset at his best, his club are entitled to wonder whether it makes more sense to simply start afresh. It won’t be for £31m but at 27 and with his contract at Old Trafford automatically extended until 2021, both parties will be considering their options.


6) Kevin de Bruyne
There is a scenario whereby Kevin de Bruyne becomes one of the four longest-serving players at Manchester City this summer. David Silva will soon hand the overall baton to Sergio Aguero, who himself has long-term aspirations away from the Etihad. Fernandinho’s time is equally limited, while Raheem Sterling is in a similar boat to his Belgian brethren. De Bruyne has established himself as a senior citizen whether Pep Guardiola disposes of Nicolas Otamendi or not.

This is already the most enduring spell De Bruyne has had at any one club, comfortably outlasting his time at Genk. Depending on the football landscape – and more specifically the outcome of City’s European ban – when the sport reverts to something resembling normality, he will have an unenviable decision to make in due course. Turning 29 in June gives him only so long to avoid such meaningless lists as this.


5) Neymar
When not weirdly baiting Erling Haaland, Neymar is rather errantly pursuing his dream of winning the Ballon d’Or. It was a motivating factor behind his decision to leave Barcelona in 2017 and remains a relative failure that could come to define him.

France has not been unkind to the 28-year-old. He has won five trophies with PSG and scored a nice 69 goals in 80 games. But the nature and circumstances of the most expensive deal in football history makes it a transfer everybody regrets. If manager Thomas Tuchel is to be believed, the player “tried everything in his power” to engineer an exit last summer. Only a fool would bet against history repeating itself before long.


4) Mo Salah
Jurgen Klopp would sell a kidney before he even contemplates parting with an organ as vital as Roberto Firmino. But there will come a time when Liverpool have to reinvent their thrilling attacking wheel and choose between keeping the elite goalscorer or the model of consistency.

The usual variables make the decision no easier. Sadio Mane and Mo Salah are separated by two months and both have just over three years left on their Anfield contracts. But the former just seems like more of an intrinsic Klopp player, and the latter the sort of star that Real Madrid or Barcelona would arrogantly covet. It might be instructive that Mane has had four clubs, each representing a natural step forward in his development, while Salah’s career has taken in six sides and a more chaotic route to success. The Egyptian has been an absolute sensation but as Nelly Furtado once reminded us: all good things come to an end.


3) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
The group of players that have reliably scored goals across three different European leagues is sparse. To continue that feat beyond 30 is to approach the sort of sustained brilliance that Cristiano Ronaldo might stop to appreciate. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored at least 20 goals in seven of the last eight seasons, from his last campaign at Saint-Etienne to two productive years at Arsenal, with a wonderful time at Dortmund in between.

But when the president of your FA is imploring you to be “more ambitious”, it speaks volumes. There is no guarantee Aubameyang would listen, given his tumultuous relationship with the national team, yet his honours list is similarly blunt: two Coupes de la Ligue, a DFB-Pokal and a DFL-Supercup is littered between individual awards and achievements. One last grab at team success would be forgivable.


2) Kalidou Koulibaly
There is many an alternate universe in which Kalidou Koulibaly has realised his immense potential. Manchester City flirted with the idea of signing the centre-half last summer, while Liverpool performed the layup but decided against a ‘slam dunk’.

He might forever exist alongside Wesley Sneijder and Nico Gaitan as a Manchester United player in transfer speculation terms only. Koulibaly is 29 this summer and could harbour some resentment at Aurelio De Laurentiis for pricing him out of a move from Napoli during his best years. A spate of injuries and the club’s slide from Serie A’s summit suggest they might already be behind him.


1) Harry Kane
And so it comes to this. The boyhood fan has a decision to make, a voice he wants to be heard and a club apparently ‘furious’ with him for it. The fractures are starting to appear.

It was inevitable for as long as Tottenham sat on their laurels, crossed their fingers and decided not to properly invest. Harry Kane, even in this most injury-affected season, has 17 goals in 25 games and more than enough reason to expect better. But Daniel Levy, as he tends to, holds all the cards. A player who turns 27 in July is in an increasingly mid-table marriage until 2024 as things stand, with no prenup to protect him.

Matt Stead


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