Ian Rush Column: A Latino duet

Cristiano Ronaldo’s less than impressive form and Lionel Messi’s injury has opened up the door for Neymar and Suarez to stake a claim for the best footballer’s crown. They have the perfect opportunity to grab the limelight. Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, in superb goal-scoring form with Bayern Munich, might provide them with some tough competition.

The goal-scoring form of Luis Suarez and Neymar has helped Barca to the top of the La Liga charts.   -  REUTERS

The number of goals says it all. Barcelona are riding high on the superb goal-scoring form of two South Americans, Neymar and Luis Suarez — who only a couple of years ago almost led Liverpool to an unbelievable title triumph in the English shores. The Brazil-Uruguay duo have scored 24 of the Catalan side’s last 30 goals — what a fantastic partnership.

Such was their form, that the lengthy absence of the diminutive Lionel Messi (who has just made a comeback to the field from a serious knee injury) was hardly missed.

Just the phrase “not missing Messi” really puts it in perspective. Messi is without doubt one of the best players in the world and yet Barcelona, without the talisman, seems to be flourishing in the partnership of Neymar and Suarez currently.

To put them in the all-time great forward partnerships is a big ask of me, as I think there is still work to be done, but they are definitely on the right track and time will tell all. But, in all fairness, they are playing quality football.

Barcelona, despite their wide array of attacking talent, often over the years have been overly dependent on Messi. I, however, don’t see any shame in it. Messi is that good and Barcelona’s style of play suits him perfectly. The introduction of Neymar and Suarez has brought another new dimension to their already excellent game and Barcelona, now, are not reliant on one single player. It is one solid team.

Messi, too, has adopted brilliantly to this and has changed his game accordingly to suit the needs of his team. MSN — Messi, Surez and Neymar — are the ultimate powerhouse right now, which has taken Barcelona to another level. No defence in Europe, by extension the world, can counter their threat. Individually they are supremely gifted and polished players — Messi, now, is the best player if you talk about skill, Suarez is the best in the world in terms of work ethic and Neymar is a perfect mix of both.

They combine each other’s strength wonderfully, putting full faith in the age-old maxim of team spirit, which to me is the biggest contributor behind any team’s success.

The Catalan team’s recent convincing win over Rafa Benitez-coached Real Madrid has given them a comfortable lead in the Spanish title race and I expect them to keep up the momentum and comfortably win La Liga. Their only worry, a suspect defence, but MSN up front will surely score more than they concede.

Real on the other hand looks a little lost. Benitez is a great manager, but his priority has always been defence and not an attacking approach, a complete opposite of what the Real fans expect and what Real has always been known for — an expansive attacking side. There are several loopholes, particularly in the defensive play, that need tightening in Real and Benitez was brought in to address them. He needs time to show progress.

The manager has not changed the style of play at Real dramatically enough to get the desired results and soothe the nerves of the club’s fanatic supporters, who have never been known for their patience. The team’s alpha, Cristiano Ronaldo, is also believed to be unhappy with the Spanish gaffer’s “defensive approach”. I empathise with Cristiano. I have faced a similar situation during my time in Italy, where the manager’s preferred system didn’t suit me the best.

Now, I can see the argument of both sides and I think Cristiano is a good enough player and should adapt accordingly.

The Portuguese has dominated the Ballon d’Or along with Messi in the recent years and is a supremely gifted footballer. However, his less than impressive form and Messi’s injury has opened up the door for Neymar and Suarez to stake a claim for the best footballer’s crown. They have the perfect opportunity to grab the limelight. Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, in superb goal-scoring form with Bayern Munich, might provide them with some tough competition.

Going back to the Liga, I have immense faith in Atletico Madrid. They are the only team in Spain, who have the best chance to challenge the Barca-Real hegemony. In Diego Simeone, they have an astute practitioner of the managerial art, one of the best in the business. Atletico’s French forward Antoine Griezmann is the one to watch, and I won’t be surprised to see him in the Premier League next season.

An Atletico triumph will stir the romantics in football. But deep down, I don’t think anyone can beat Barcelona or Real to the title.