Lionel Messi was in sight of a hat-trick and the chance to strike another blow in his seemingly eternal battle with Cristiano Ronaldo. With five minutes remaining of Barcelona’s clash with La Liga basement dwellers Córdoba, Barcelona were leading 6-0 and Messi had already scored twice.
Now all he had to do was convert a penalty from 12 yards and he would surpass his long-time rival Ronaldo as the scorer of the most hat-tricks in La Liga history, while also gaining a further advantage in Spain’s Pichichi race. But Messi had other ideas. Instead of placing the ball on the spot and shooting himself he presented it to Neymar to get the goal instead.
In the context of an emphatic 8-0 victory for Barcelona, the incident meant little. But the lack of self interest displayed by Messi was emblematic of just why he, Neymar and Luis Suárez currently form the most devastating attack in the world and quite possibly of all time. And on Wednesday they could further etch their name in the pantheon of the sport’s greats when going up against Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal.
Of course a huge part of their success is the simple fact that they are three of the very best players in the world. Each of them would be the undoubted superstar at almost any other team in the world. That three players of their standing are together in one team is a modern phenomenon, fuelled by the concentration of wealth and thus talent at a few select “superclubs.”
Messi, a four-time world player of the year, is the greatest player of his generation. And after nearly two years during which he was seemingly hampered by fitness troubles and problems off the field he is now back to his scintillating best.
Neymar is Brazil’s golden boy, a player that from his early teenage years has been faced with the burden of being dubbed the latest “new Pele.” He has dealt with the hype phenomenally well, scoring 43 goals in just 62 appearances for Brazil and firing them through to the World Cup semifinals on home soil last summer before his injury precipitated his country’s disastrous defeat to Germany.
Suárez was the final and in many ways most treacherous piece of the jigsaw. The Uruguayan had excelled in the Premier League with Liverpool, not just leading the team with 31 goals to win Europe’s Golden Shoe last season, but displaying a phenomenal will to win that on three notable occasions spilled over into biting ignominy.
But simply combining great players is not in itself a recipe for success. Ann individual is only as valuable as his contribution within the context of the team. You only have to look at Barcelona’s great rivals to see this fact borne out. Most notably there was the Galactico era when Madrid assembled a staggering array of talent, including Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, David Beckham, Ronaldo and Raul. But the experiment failed with the club failing to win a title for three years at the era’s end.
Even now at the Bernabeu, Madrid have the two most expensive players in history in Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Yet, despite winning the Champions League last season, the combination of two such individualistic players in the same team has always left it unbalanced. This season Bale has struggled and faced accusations of selfishness.
At the start, it looked like Barcelona’s policy of collecting star attackers might fall flat, too. After returning from his four-month biting ban, Suárez made his debut in the first Clasico of the season and Barcelona were left horribly unbalanced en route to a painful 3-1 defeat. It took Suárez five matches to register his first goal in a Barcelona shirt and he only found the net five times in his first 18 outings for his new club.
So it says much for how phenomenally well both he has adapted to the Barcelona team and they have adapted to him in the last three months that he now has 24 goals. As a trio, Suárez, Messi and Neymar have found the net 108 times this season and have already broken the previous Barcelona record set by Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o in Pep Guardiola’s treble season.
To do so all three have modified their game to the needs of the team – none more so than Messi. As he became the dominant player at the club and in the world, finding players that could contribute around him became an increasing problem. Zlatan Ibrahimovic lasted just a single season, David Villa not much longer and the now Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez always looked shrunken by Messi’s presence. Perhaps Messi realized the time and the players were now right to change. The key turning point in the fortunes of Barcelona’s front three came when Messi moved from the central striker role to the right flank, thus opening up space for Suárez down the middle. More than just that, though, Messi also now drifts inside, performing the playmaking role that has seen him register 22 assists in addition to his 51 goals.
The other two have also sacrificed. Neymar was derided by many upon his move to the Camp Nou two years ago as a being more about fancy tricks than the end product, but he has reined in the ebullience. Meanwhile, Suárez constantly makes unselfish runs and displays a willingness to drift wide to open up space.
It is the interchange of positions and the interplay between Barcelona’s forwards that really catches the eye. Against both Getafe and Córdoba over the past eight days, Messi, Suárez and Neymar have between them scored 10 goals and registered six assists. The lightning quick passing exchanges between them around the penalty area are a mesmeric joy to behold.
It is now Bayern Munich and former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola who face the unenviable task of trying to stop a trio that will already go down in history.