MSN vs BBC: Have Messi-Suarez-Neymar outperformed the trio of Bale-Benzema-Cristiano?
The shoulders drooped as another shot connected with nothing but thin air; the countenance grew darker as the whistles started again. They had been whistling every missed shot, every misplaced pass, every unsuccessful dribble for most of the match, and indeed for most of the new year. All of a sudden, he decided he had had enough. Hands on his hips, Cristiano Ronaldo turned, and in his inimitable, and undeniably theatrical way, asked the faithful congregated at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu to go f**k themselves, or as they say in Madeira – “F**anse”.
Madrid had won the game 2-0, but the mob wasn’t appeased. This was a lowly Levante team the Whites were facing (the Valencianos are currently in 18th), and they had been expecting more – more goals, more excitement, and more fantasy football. They were unhappy and very vocally so.
The opening goal of the match was a perfect illustration of the chaotic goings-on in the most decorated football team on the planet. The goal in itself had been made and scored by the “BBC” – Bale, Benzema and Cristiano – but it was what followed that was of deeper interest. The scorer, Gareth Bale, celebrated it with vehement, and atypical, anger - he hadn’t scored in the previous eight games, and with the fans (and more so the media – the near vitriolic Marca in particular) heaping criticism on him, his relief and frustrated fury were palpable.
While his teammates celebrated, Ronaldo stood just outside the 6-yard box, cursing himself for having not scored with a spectacular bicycle kick that was cleared off the line (and eventually landed on Bale’s feet.) It didn’t matter that his team was ahead, just that he had missed. Even keeping in mind the great man’s quest for perfection, the reaction seemed petty, and selfish.
Meanwhile, 609 kilometres across the A-2, the Nou Camp’s answer to “BBC” have played with a collegiate camaraderie that has captured the essence of all the qualities that the Madridistas are so desperately seeking in their trio – fluency in movement, selflessness in possession, and pure joy in the others’ success.
MSN – Messi, Neymar and Suárez – have taken the world by storm and have left the “BBC” floundering in their wake.
The Castilian congregation are certainly not enjoying that.
A season of two extremes for the men in white
Early in the season though, it hadn’t looked like anything would catch up to the BBC. Real Madrid, propelled by the ace form of the BBC, had started the season in imperious fashion. With Cristiano Ronaldo in the greatest goal-scoring form of his life (18 goals in 11 games at one point in time!), they looked set to sweep everything in their sight in Spain, and in Europe. As had happened in the Champions League last season, Madrid’s front trio were combining well – their untouchable combination of pace, power and sheer athleticism bordering on the unplayable at times.
As they blitzkrieg-ed their way through Spain, they ran up ridiculous scores – an 8-2 here, a couple of 5-0s there, with a whole lot of 3 and 4 goal margin victories thrown in for good measure. And then, out of the blue, something happened that threw the proverbial spanner in their works.
Luka Modric hurt his thigh.
Just as they seemed to be reaching an unassailable position in La Liga (after eviscerating Barcelona 3-1 on the way), Madrid went into a free fall (relatively speaking, of course).
Laying the blame of the dip in form of three of the planet’s best-attacking footballers at the feet of one man sounds ludicrous, but with the magical little Croat sidelined for nearly three months, Madrid soon became a team of two distinct parts – “BBC” and everyone else. Even Joseph Strauss would have struggled to bridge the gap between Los Blancos’ attack and midfield.
Neither selflessness nor intensity have ever been their strong suit – Bale and Ronaldo are both selfish players by nature; their best performances have always come when they have been given the license to do whatever the hell they wanted. And, vastly improved work-rate notwithstanding, Karim Benzema is no Carlo Tevez.
Even when they were playing well, the interchanging and passing combinations as well as the degree of pressing from the frontline were at a bare minimum. At times in the recent past though, their display in these areas have been nothing short of shambolic.
And it is in these pain areas that Barcelona have rubbed salt in their opponents wounds.
The integration of Luis Suárez – how “MSN” has ‘clicked’
Luis Suárez has ripped through La Liga like Taz on a caffeine high. This high-octane bundle of passion, commitment and intensity has infected the entire camp with his spirit, influencing everyone on his team; none more so than Lionel Messi. The great Argentine had ambled through the early bits of the season like a jock wandering around a science fair – distracted and disinterested, his influence on games waning (never more so than in the season’s first clasico). But by the time Suárez finally settled down comfortably (remember, he made his debut for the club only on the 25th of October) sometime in December (reports suggested that Messi had won the duel he seemed to be locked in with Luis Enrique); the man from Rosario had gotten back to his scurrying, incisive best.
What has helped “MSN” is Luis Enrique’s tweaking of Barcelona’s system. No more of the passing carousel that so utterly destroyed Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in Wembley in 2011 as Barcelona were now a team geared to get the ball to their match-winning forwards as soon as possible. This now means they are able to alternate between counter attack and possession football with consummate ease.
Suárez’s intensity and work-rate has also transmitted across the front line – Messi and Neymar, neither of whom are renowned for their defensive work ethic have been snapping at the heels of the opposition.
As for selflessness, can anything better this?
Suárez’s willingness to accept the prevalent pecking order and his open admission that he doesn’t mind playing second fiddle to either Messi or Neymar has gone a long way in the development of the almost supernatural understanding between the three. It is a feeling mutual respect and admiration that shines through when they put on those displays of uninhibited, spontaneous, joy whenever one of them scores a goal.
That’s what makes watching Barcelona play these days, such a wonderful experience – the sheer joy they seem to be taking on strutting their stuff on the ground. Lionel Messi is nutmegging people for fun, Suarez has that big, goofy grin plastered on his face as he weaves through defenders and Neymar is just being his usual PlayStation-character self.
“MSN” vs. “BBC” – How the numbers stack up
By pushing the ball up, Barça are now letting their front three do all the work. Not just scoring goals, but creating them too. Their interplay has been marvelous – in just 22 matches this year, they have combined for 40 completed passes around the danger zone (in and around the penalty area) leading to 11 goals.
This number is a mere 20 passes – for six goals – for the BBC.
Suárez has scored just 13 goals in 22 matches (not too bad really – considering the long suspension lay-off and the need to adapt to a whole new system), but he hasn’t been sulking in a corner because of his relatively low (for his own high standards) goal return. The Uruguayan has had 10 assists in the same period – and numbers being just that, numbers, they don’t really tell the full tale of how Neymar and Messi have benefited from Suárez’s constant lateral movement; the intelligent, quick, darts in and out of pockets around the middle that have pulled defence after defence apart.
Ivan Rakitic’s goal against City is a perfect example of how Suárez’s movement has transformed Barça – Messi ran his usual path, cutting in from the right towards the center, Suárez ran the opposite direction pulling Martín Demichelis along with him while Neymar cut in from the left, seemingly in support of Messi. This gave Rakitic the freedom of the box – where he was found so perfectly by the Argentine.
(A completely unrelated aside – how insane, and how wonderful, is it that the biggest clubs in the country most renowned for producing midfield maestros are now being marshaled by the genius of two Croats?)
Against those numbers put up by the Uruguayan, Neymar has 26 goals in 29, with 4 assists while the incomparable Lionel Messi has 43 goals and 17 assists in 34 matches. That’s an incredible 82 goals and 31 assists for the MSN. The goals by themselves account for 75% of all of Barcelona’s goals this season. The assist charts for the team meanwhile are led by Leo Messi and Luis Suárez. That is the extent of dominance, and self-dependence of the three great South Americans – they enjoy scoring, but they appear to be enjoying the creating just as much.
Recent dip in form notwithstanding, Madrid’s trio aren’t too far away – mainly due to their blistering early season form – Bale has scored 14 in 31 games, with 6 assists; Benzema has 19 in 32 with 9 assists and Ronaldo has 39 goals in 32(!), with 13 assists(!!!). That’s a combined total of 75 goals (72% of all of Madrid’s goals) and 28 assists.
On recent form, the South American magicians sweep aside the European super-athletes, in the stats tables as well as in the intangibles on the football pitch, but there is no doubting the capability of the “BBC” – as defensively weak, and as poor as their interplay can be, they are more than capable of producing moments of pure magic. At their best, they can go toe-to-toe with any frontline in the world. Including “MSN”.
The Bernabéu faithful may do well to try and keep that in mind.
The day of reckoning – the most important Clasico in recent memory
Come Sunday, the issue will be settled one way or the other. Whether “BBC” show up for this tie will determine just how much money Florentino Perez will have to spend in the summer – for a loss here, and they may well end the season with the unthinkable proposition of having no trophies in that glittering cabinet of theirs.
“BBC” and Madrid need a win badly, and they have a point to prove. Anger, when channeled effectively, can be one of the great motivators, and no one is angrier these days than Messrs. Bale, Benzema and Cristiano. Barcelona meanwhile, and their awe-inspiring strike-force of Messrs. Messi, Suárez and Neymar, look in no mood to give an inch.
Should be a cracker this one.