Has Neymar done enough to keep Messi sidelined for Barça's own good this weekend?
Is there a better player in the world right now than Neymar? In the nine games since Barcelona's 2-1 La Liga victory over Las Palmas, that fateful September day on which Lionel Messi suffered the injury that’s sidelined him for two months, the Blaugrana have netted 21 goals. With 10 goals and six assists over the same period, Neymar has directly contributed to 76% of his team's most vital statistic.
Clearly, the numbers represent a stunning level of form – the Brazilian has taken it upon himself to pilot the team in the absence of his talismanic Argentine team-mate. Certainly, he’s made the most of this chance to demonstrate his ability to lead by example.
Old news, but Neymar played 10 games across Copa/Champions quarters, semis, finals last season – hit 12 goals. That's some big-game record.
— Thore Haugstad (@Haugstad1006) November 19, 2015
Neymar is comfortably bearing the pressure of responsibility in the same way that has made him the darling of his Brazilian national team, seemingly completely at peace in his new role as commander of Luis Enrique's Catalonian ship.
Have Barça really missed Messi? With El Clasico just around the corner, it's exactly the kind of question Real Madrid didn't want to become relevant.
- Games 14 (all comps)
- Goals 13
- Assists 14
Before Messi's injury, Neymar had netted three goals and laid on zero assists, in five games. It’s a record that looks miserable in comparison to his more recent form. What, in the absence of Barcelona’s star, then, has changed about Neymar's performances? What has allowed one of the game's perennial rising stars to morph himself into the world's single most dangerous attacking threat?
Unsurprisingly, Neymar has been receiving the ball from his team-mates more often in Messi's absence. In the most recent domestic and Champions League games played alongside Messi, against Celta Vigo and Roma respectively, Neymar was the successful recipient of a combined 103 passes.
Compare that to the most recent domestic and Champions League matches without Messi and that figure skyrockets to 160, a near 60% increase in his potential to influence.
Such a huge shift highlights the trust those around him have in his ability to positively impact results. That trust, however, despite Neymar's fearsome goal tally, has not been selfishly taken advantage of.
Brazil meets Uruguay
Barcelona's midfielders, freed from having to choose between playing the ball to either Messi or Neymar, are able to get the ball forward quicker
With six assists this season – three apiece in the league and Champions League – Neymar has provided more goals than any of his Barcelona team-mates. Four of them have served Suarez with goals.
Further, Suarez is second in Barcelona's assist table with four across the same two competitions. Three of those have been for Neymar goals. In the absence of Messi, Suarez and Neymar have managed to sharpen up their own combined attacking threat with only two, rather than three, world-class players spread across the frontline.
Barcelona's midfielders, freed from having to choose between playing the ball to either Messi or Neymar, are able to get the ball forward quicker and allow their terrifying Brazilian-Uruguayan pair to, essentially, do the rest. The fact that Neymar is making the most of the extra attention, and is himself no longer required to keep track of Messi's movement, allows him to be much more direct and play in a way that more closely matches those performances that made him the undisputed star of Brazil and Santos – performances that resulted in his move to Barcelona in the first place.
It might not be the style of play preferred by the great Guardiola Barcelona sides of years past, but to not take advantage of such attacking talent in the way Luis Enrique is currently doing would be remiss.
While Neymar's form is music to the eyes and ears of Catalonia, the Real Madrid faithful will be altogether less smitten. Before this most magical of seasons, Neymar has already proven to be a thorn in los Blancos’ side, having scored two goals and grabbed an assist in the four league games he’s played against them since moving to Spain in the summer of 2013.
To make matters worse for Madrid, they come into the match having lost their previous fixture 3-2 against Sevilla. Most worrying of all was the performance of right-back Danilo, the Brazilian having been broken by the marauding Yevhen Konoplyanka down the same left flank occupied by Neymar.
There's no doubting Konoplyanka’s talent, but he's certainly no Neymar. If Danilo was unable to contain the Ukrainian, how can he possibly halt his fellow countryman?
Messi, however, has returned to training and could feature against Barça’s arch rivals. If that happens it will be interesting to see how both Neymar reacts to his presence, and how Enrique might look to alter the focus and mentality of his team. Should Messi and Neymar return to sharing the load, then Danilo might find he has slightly less to do than otherwise expected.
The stage is set for Neymar to continue his devastating form and make the grandest statement yet about his status among football's elite
Bizarre as it might sound, then, the return of the century's best player might actually provide certain members of the opposition the chance to play better.
Whatever the case, even if Messi should return, the stage is set for Neymar to continue his devastating form and make the grandest statement yet about his status among football's elite. The 23-year-old Brazilian has the required mentality, ego and talent to lead the best teams in the world, and there can be no doubt that he will, sooner rather than later, want to shed his image as Messi's second-in-command.
He's gone a long way to achieving that already. A standout performance in the world's most illustrious and closely fought fixture could dramatically disrupt our current vision of who we currently consider the best footballer on the planet.