x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

South American tandem of Messi and Neymar locked in at Barcelona

Pressure building for Barcelona to win again this season as Neymar joins Lionel Messi up front, writes Andy Mitten.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, left, and Neymar, second to the right, celebrate after scoring against Thailand during an exhibition match last week. Nicolas Asfouri / AFP
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, left, and Neymar, second to the right, celebrate after scoring against Thailand during an exhibition match last week. Nicolas Asfouri / AFP

Jorge Messi, father of the world's greatest footballer, met Barcelona president Sandro Rosell and the club's sporting director in April. Over a meal, they discussed Barcelona's future, should Tito Vilanova's cancer treatment not go to plan. They all hoped it would, but they needed a plan B.

Jorge mentioned that he was a great admirer of Gerardo "Tata" Martino, a hero of his since Tata played for Newell's Old Boys, the club the Messi family support. Martino, native of Rosario, the Messis' home city, had impressed as a coach, too.

Vilanova had to step down. Luis Enrique was a favourite to take over. He had kept his options open at home in Barcelona since stepping down as Roma boss a year earlier and the old guard of Barcelona players liked him. Many of the younger players had worked with him in his three years as Barca B coach, after succeeding Pep Guardiola.

But Martino was appointed. The fathers of most players don't get one-on-one meetings with Barcelona's top brass, but then, they are not the fathers of Lionel Messi.

On and off the pitch, Barcelona's No 10 has significant influence. Former strikers like Zlatan Ibrahimovic may claim he has too much. Messi is, after all, a player and not the coach, but what Messi says usually goes.

Samuel Eto'o, David Villa and Thierry Henry all respect Messi greatly. They acknowledge that he is the greatest footballer on the planet, but they all had moments of tension with their strike partner.

They had to deal with going from being the main man to playing second fiddle to the genius, and as Wayne Rooney has shown at Manchester United, that is not always an easy adjustment.

Players felt that they were shunted out of their best position as Messi occupied the deep-lying central striking role, that their voice had become secondary. They invariably left.

Barca are built around Messi, but even the greatest needs greats around him. Neymar is Barcelona's newest strike partner, a €57 million (Dh278.3m) signing from Santos to cheer fans who had seen their side demolished 7-0 on aggregate by Bayern Munich.

Neymar's arrival was feted with the customary Catalan fanfare of a huge crowd to greet him and his talent seems almost magical. Fans are enthused by the prospect of Messi and Neymar, 21, up front. Who wouldn't be? If they can gel, then the Brazilian-Argentinian front two will be the most mesmerising in world football.

They will help Barcelona retain their title ahead of Real Madrid and make the side a more potent force in the Champions League. Barca were over-reliant on an exhausted, injured, Messi as last season reached its climax.

Barca fans may have felt a more pressing need for a central defender, rather than another attacker, but their team was too reliant on Messi's goals.

He has scored more than 50 in the last two seasons, while the second top scorers, Villa and Cesc Fabregas, managed 16 and 15. Barca's goals were much more evenly spread when they won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011.

Neymar claimed at his unveiling that he wants to "help Messi continue being the best in the world". The Argentine long anointed the Brazilian with his verbal seal of approval. Neymar can take the pressure - and defenders off Messi. Early impressions of Neymar are positive, with Xavi describing him as "humble" and stating that "he will fit perfectly into the Barcelona philosophy".

There is a pressure to utter such positive platitudes, since it is what the people who pay their wages want to hear, and complimenting a new signing will do no harm. Yet opinions will be formed by what the pair do on the pitch.

To sate these continually high expectations, Barcelona need to retain the league title and come close to winning the Champions League crown. Messi and Neymar need to be integral to that success. If they are not, cynics will see it as another maladjusted and failed frontline experiment.


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