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 the Argentine?
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 best players.
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 final.
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 chanelled 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 six years.
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.