Are Messi, Suarez and Neymar Barcelona's best-ever front three?
From Hristo Stoichkov to Romario, Rivaldo to Ronaldinho, or Henrik Larsson to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, FC Barcelona's modern era has been marked by the presence of great forwards. On the rare occasions where three of those forwards hit it off, the results are spectacular. Barca fans will never forget the triumvirate of Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi destroying all in its path en route to an historic treble in 2009. Nor will the technical excellence of Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez slip from their minds, the trio so vital in winning the league and Champions League at the peak of former manager Pep Guardiola's powers in 2011.
The numbers being produced by Messi and his new partners in crime Luis Suarez and Neymar this season suggest we may well be watching Barca's next great front three. Manager Luis Enrique's first choice forwards have found the net a combined 93 times in 2014-15, something that Catalan daily Sport labels as a "record [breaking] pace". With a minimum of eight games left to play before the summer, they are only five goals away from matching the figures achieved by the formidable trio of Villa, Pedro and Messi in 2010-11.
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More pertinently, they are also well on course to matching the 100 goals scored by Messi, Eto'o and Henry in 2008-09 -- the record tally for a Barcelona forward line to date. With Barca still due to play canon fodder like Getafe and Cordoba in the league -- not to mention the likelihood that they will participate in at least three more games in the Champions League -- scoring seven more goals before the end of the season isn't a huge ask.
They may even score more. In anticipation of a new record, some outlets, like L'Esportiu de Catalunya, are already suggesting that the current attacking line-up is the best the club has ever witnessed. In many ways it is difficult to disagree. While Eto'o, Henry and Messi were a physical force capable of bludgeoning opponents into submission, and the Argentine, Pedro and Villa relied more on virtuosity to do their damage, the current trio has elements of both. Messi, Neymar and Suarez can damage their rivals via a thousand different methods: they are all excellent dribblers, all top-class finishers, and all intelligent enough to interchange seamlessly, mid-game, depending on the challenges with which they are presented.
At the same time, their comfort in using sheer pace to the team's advantage has added another, counter-attacking string to Barca's bow. Without the ball, the trident has no qualms about doing the dirty work: Messi has rediscovered his desire to press and win possession, Suarez is insatiable in that regard, and even Neymar has bulked up significantly, putting the hours in at the gym necessary to fully adjust to European football. Try to out-punch them, and just like Henry, Messi and Eto'o, they will win. Try to out-think them and, like Messi, Villa and Pedro, they will win all the same.
Among all the "best front three ever" euphoria there is a small caveat, however. The great Barcelona trios of 2009 and 2011 had something obvious in common: they both had a huge amount of collective experience of performing at the highest possible level. Eto'o had scored in a Champions League final for Barcelona before doing so again in 2009. Henry had played in that same 2006 final for Arsenal, plus a European Championship final for France, before taking the stage in Rome. Pedro and Villa, meanwhile, had carried the weight of a nation on their shoulders at the 2010 World Cup final, before they were handed the challenge of delivering for Barcelona at Wembley a year later.
Neymar has played in and won a Copa Libertadores final, while Suarez has done the same in the Copa America, so clearly neither are rookies, but it is worth keeping in mind that the pair are currently playing at the furthest stage of the Champions League than they ever have in their careers. If we accept that the World Cup, European Championship and Champions League finals are the three biggest one-off games in football, then we also have to accept that both Neymar and Suarez have yet to experience a game of the same magnitude.
How they would cope, should Barcelona make it to Berlin in June, no one really knows. The forwards may well shrug off the pressure and deliver their finest displays, but equally, they could choke. Experience may be overshadowed by goals in the numbers-heavy contemporary analysis of football, but when it comes to making the right-decision in a split second during the most important of games, it is a worthwhile commodity. There still remains an unproven aspect to both players therefore. Until they dispel that element of doubt, they cannot quite be hailed as on a par with Villa, Pedro, Henry and Eto'o just yet.
The best way for the two to silence the remaining cynics would be to lift the cup with the big ears in June, and should that happen, it wouldn't be the first time doubters are left looking foolish by Barcelona strikers. It is easy to forget now, but going into the 2009 final, some analysts -- particularly in Britain -- questioned Messi's capacity to deliver. After all, unlike Cristiano Ronaldo, he had never played in a Champions League final before. Plenty of mouths were soon shut when Messi out-jumped Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand to head the decisive second goal past Edwin van der Sar, sealing the Champions League win for his team. If Suarez and Neymar can help Barcelona to achieve the same feat, the greatness of this front three will be unquestionable.