Madrid - During Brazilian star Neymar's two-and-a-half year
spell at Barcelona, there has been one continuous soundbite from the softly-spoken
23-year-old: "I'm here to learn from the best".
The "best" he consistently cites is teammate and
four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi. The two share a telepathic
relationship on the field and, along with Uruguayan Luis Suarez, form one of
the most lethal strike forces world football has ever seen.
"To play beside the best is very easy," Neymar
said during Barca's treble-winning campaign last season.
Yet, whilst Messi has been sidelined for the past two months
by knee ligament damage, it is Neymar that has carried the European champions
to an unexpected three-point lead in La Liga heading into Saturday's huge clash
away at Real Madrid.
Given his form in recent months, is there much for Neymar
the apprentice to learn from his master Messi? And, with the latter set to
return this weekend, will Neymar be happy to hand over the reigns once more to
Also read: Neymar showing leadership in the absence of Messi
Initial impressions are that he will. Primarily because
Neymar, Messi and Suarez share an equally strong relationship off the field as
they do in tearing opponents to shreds on it.
Their social media pages spill over with mutual admiration,
whilst Suarez and Neymar have been quick to shout down any suggestions their
form has meant Messi's absence has been forgotten.
"People remember him just as well because he is the
best player in the world," said Suarez after a recent victory over Getafe.
Yet, Neymar's trajectory suggests he will be the one to
finally break Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's eight-year reign as the world's two
In his first season at Barca, Neymar netted just nine league
goals. In 10 games this campaign he already has 11 to lead Ronaldo and Messi as
the league's top scorer.
The signs of improvement were clear to see last season.
Neymar struck 39 times in 51 games, including becoming the first man to net in
both legs of the Champions League quarter and semi-finals, as well as the
This season he has gone to a new level.
In Messi's absence he has demanded the ball, created and
scored goals. Just as impressively, the petulance that has at times blighted
his career to date, most notably in being sent-off and sent-home early from the
Copa America in June, appears to have gone.
When he grew frustrated with the rough attention and lack of
protection being offered from the referee in Barca's last outing against
Villarreal, he channeled the anger constructively by going on to score twice
and set up the other in a 3-0 win.
His stunning second provoked Barca boss Luis Enrique to make
comparisons with Ronaldinho - another Brazilian that enthralled the Camp Nou on
his way to becoming the world's best.
"Since the start of the season he has been
electric," added Enrique.
"Neymar has reached a point of maturity. He's in
superlative form, nearly at the level of the two footballers who top them
all," said Argentina boss Gerardo Martino, who was in charge of Neymar
during his first season at Barca.
Messi will almost certainly take home his fifth Ballon d'Or
come January as just reward for his starring role in Barca's second treble in
Yet, for the first time Neymar is expected to be standing
alongside he and Ronaldo on the podium in what will be the most obvious sign
yet of his emergence as the best of the rest.
Form suggests he will even be the star that shines brightest
at the Bernabeu on Saturday.For
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