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In the build up to Arsenal’s Champions League second round game with Barcelona, Arsene Wenger spoke of the importance of his team avoiding the concession of an away goal, calling it a “knife to the heart”.
In the end he saw his team slashed twice by the imperious Lionel Messi who put the Catalans in control ahead of the return leg in three weeks’ time.
Arsenal had chances and Wenger will be disappointed his team didn’t convert them as the spectre of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez always loomed over them waiting to strike.
That trio had a combined season goal tally of 92 going into the match at the Emirates and they had to wait patiently, until the 71st minute, to make it 93; Suarez releasing Neymar into an inexplicably vacated area of midfield where he could square it for Messi.
The away goal packing so much punch in two-legged European ties that all Arsenal’s good work before that moment was shredded into a familiar resignation.
As Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez toiled in Arsenal’s attack there would have been a stark reminder the Gunners simply don’t have anybody with the same elite and decisive quality that has fired Luis Enrique’s Barcelona to five major trophies over the past 12 months.
Sanchez won a league and cup double with Barcelona in 2013 but had struggled to adapt to the high-pressing game indoctrinated at the Nou Camp by Pep Guardiola. Despite scoring 21 goals in his third season in Spain, Barcelona ended that campaign trophy-less and the Chilean was packed off to London as Luis Enrique took the reins from Gerardo Martino.
Enrique signed Suarez and the Uruguayan adjusted to the demands of playing alongside Messi and Neymar seamlessly as the goals have flowed at an extraordinary rate; the Uruguayan has 66 from the 81 games he has played since joining from Liverpool in 2014.
Worthy of acclaim after initial doubts
Messi continues to be unstoppable, the 300 La Liga goal barrier was his latest frontier, but Neymar is proving worthy of joining them on that plateau of brilliance.
Of course with Barcelona forking out £71 million which preceded all the continuing legal wrangling over the nuances of his mouth-watering fee, there would have been large expectation for the Brazilian to reach those levels.
Yet there was some reasonable scepticism that the boy with the brazen haircut who was comfortable in the backwaters of the Brazilian league with Santos was just a “Youtube player” and would be soon outed as such once he made the move to Europe.
Three seasons in Spain and the 24 year old sits on 77 goals from 125 appearances for Barcelona and 23 of them have come this term. In this season’s La Liga only Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Suarez have more than Neymar’s 18 strikes while on the assists charts he is second only to Suarez with 9. A rate of 3.6 chances per game puts him 7th in the La Liga ratings and would surely have a more prolific return without Suarez’s habit for regularly missing easy chances.
Another four assists have come in the Champions League, the latest arriving with the square ball to Messi on Tuesday night which indicated the Brazilian’s willingness to be a deferential supply-line when required.
It is in stark contrast to Johan Cruyff’s prediction that the Argentine would struggle to co-exist at the same club with his fellow South American and that Neymar’s ego would affect squad harmony. There has been little sign of that and when Suarez nicked ahead of Neymar to slot away Messi’s pass-penalty against Celta Vigo that was initially meant for the Brazilian, there was little fuss and he was the one left espousing the importance of friendship.
“It doesn’t matter who scores the goals just that we win the games,” he said.
When Messi’s injury against Las Palmas ruled him out for two months earlier in the season, it did matter who got the goals. Barcelona scored 27 goals in that 10 match period and Neymar got 11 of them, including 4 in a marvellous performance against Rayo Vallecano.
He was given the man of the match champagne in 9 matches out of 11 around that time as he revelled in his role as Barca’s main man.
That short spell, which incidentally contained Barcelona’s last defeat, the 2-1 loss in Sevilla where Neymar also scored, may be a precursor to the future when Neymar is eventually handed the baton by Messi who is now approaching his 30s.
The mooted move to Manchester United seems laughable as he has proven he can be Barcelona’s long-term man, continuing to thrive and mature in the company of the irresistible Messi and Suarez.
Breaking the Messi-grip
He may be still supplying them both with chances and easy goals, but it won’t be long before he breaks Messi’s vice-like grip on the Ballon D’Or.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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