kayode OGUNDARE @kaybaba99
Over two legs in what was one of the most high-profile match-ups in the UCL round of 16 games – the others being Chelsea versus PSG and Bayern Munich versus Juventus – Barcelona overcame Arsenal 5-1 on aggregate with, as usual, their famed attacking line sharing the goalscoring duties among themselves.
In a hundred years from now, when the story of this era is being retold, either by word of mouth or through audio-visuals, history will record those of us who lived in the time when the competition between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi was at its fiercest as being lucky to have been born in this epoch.
More than that, history will be kind to us that we witnessed the birth, growth and explosion of the greatest attacking trio known to man, the trident called the MSN after (Lionel) Messi, (Luis) Suarez and Neymar.
Previously, the attacking partnership between Real Madrid’s Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas had been described as the best in the history of the game but never had three players, playing in the same team, captured the imagination of the world by making the opposition look silly and goalscoring look so easy.
The ingenuity of the trio’s strength lies in the fact that, taken separately, these guys are world beaters in their own right but Messi’s injury-enforced absence last year has revealed that this partnership is not overly dependent on the reigning World Footballer of the year, more than you can say for the other partnership of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, a.k.a BBC.
In the Argentinian’s absence, the remaining two-thirds of Barcelona’s MSN were extraordinary and quickly doused any fears we had harboured that the team was going to be adversely affected. Rather than be weighed down by a relentless and difficult fixture list in the absence of their most-prized star, coupled by the limitations imposed by a transfer ban, Neymar and Suarez took their game new planes of existence.
In the league Neymar and Suarez combined to score every single Barcelona goal between Messi’s injury in September and his cameo return in last November’s Clasico. In all competitions, they scored 20 of Barcelona’s 23 goals in that period, leading the team to eight wins in nine and the top of the league table. And they say Barcelona is dependent on Messi? Think again.
In Messi’s absence, the team had become theirs, and everyone knew it. Neymar was boss; Suarez was commander. Everyone else fell into line after them. In a way few had predicted, the absence of the ‘Messi-ah’ had empowered them, heightening the sense of their influence and worth as Messi closed in on a return.
When he eventually did, the MSN was different. Since then, the trio and, by extension, Barcelona have grown in leaps and bounds, on course for another historic quintuplet of titles namely Liga, Copa, Champions League, EUFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup, all of which they currently hold.
One reason why the trio have been phenomenally successful is the friendship and lack of guile and petty jealous among them. They play for each other and are genuinely happy to help one another succeed on the pitch, sometimes putting aside quest for personal glory for group success. This was evident in the game against Celta Vigo last February when Messi, rather than score a penalty to reach an historic 300th goal, chose to pass to Suarez who then completed his hattrick.
These acts of selflessness are helping the trident to bond on the pitch as well as off it. Neymar was reported to have bought a house not very far from where Messi and Suarez live.
Neymar himself stretched this self-evident truth further when he said: “[With Leo and Luis] we get along very well. Not only on the field, but mostly off it. Today I can say we became friends, and when that happens in football you help your mates even more during the matches. We have developed a strong bond, being three South American players and ‘rivals’, it’s something very hard to accomplish, but we did it, playing together and forging a good friendship. But most importantly, it’s working well on the field.”
That will explain why the trio have scored over 106 goals between them, nothing a remarkable 68 in 25 league matches, a feat bettered only by PSG and Real Madrid of all the 97 other teams in Europe’s top five leagues. For three players, this is phenomenal, for lack of a better word. And, don’t forget, Messi missed 10 consecutive matches through injury. Imagine if he had played those games.
If titles are the scales by which a team’s achievement is measured, then this Barcelona side will easily rank as the greatest in history, arguably. If caliber of players is the measuring rod, then any team parading Messi, Neymar and Suarez will easily outrank any other.
Amazingly, while Barcelona keep amassing titles by the bucket-load courtesy of this formidable trio, they have not had too many joyful moments with their national teams.
By fate or human design, they are all South Americans from countries with rich pedigree at the international level. Messi’s Argentina have not won a notable title since the 1993 Copa America and when the inevitable comparison with Diego Maradona crops up, Messi’s case and cause is usually blighted by those who think he cannot lay claim to greatness until he’s led the Albiceleste to a major title.
Twice he tried within the last two years but on both occasions he fell short. First at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, he led Argentina to the final but lost to Germany via the odd-goal. The following year, again his dream was cut short at the Copa America when homers Chile again defeated his Argentina by 1-0 to leave him broken hearted. For all his club achievement, Messi’s national team trophy cabinet boasts of only a U-20 World Cup and Olympic gold medal
Somehow you know he’s getting close and the Copa América Centenario (to mark the 100th anniversary of the competition) scheduled to hold in the United States of America in June could be where Messi finally strikes pay-dirt. Who says he cannot be third-time lucky after back-to-back heartaches?
If Messi has come agonizingly close, Suarez’s Uruguay are a million light years from the country they used to be in the past in terms of glory. Record winner of 15 Copa America title (Argentina are on 14 while Brazil have won just 8 times), there was a time Uruguay held both the Olympic title and FIFA World Cup title simultaneously but they have not won any tangible title since Suarez helped them to the Copa America in 2011, his only title till date.
Since then, this country of 3.2million people has struggled to measure up with its much more illustrious neighbours.
Neymar, the youngest of the trio, is Brazil’s greatest hope of getting back to the giddy heights of the past when victory was taken for granted as they strolled to a record five FIFA World Cup titles. He was sorely missed at the 2014 World Cup semi-finals when his team was humiliated by eventual winners Germany who pummeled them by seven goals.
Still without a major senior title save for the FIFA Confederations Cup which he won on home soil in 2013, the 24-year old will be hoping for a change in fortune soon to be considered among his country’s most illustrious players.
Now, for a moment, imagine these three juggernauts turning out for the same national team. Messi is 28, Suarez a year older while Neymar is 24 years old. These, according to sports medicine experts, are the age range within which a player is at his optimal best and most productive.
So, for example, let us imagine they all line up for Brazil, Argentina or even Uruguay. Who do you think can stop them?
I can’t think of one team. Can you?
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