The next Balon D’Or, or Fifa World Footballer of the Year, should go to one of Barcelona’s strikers. So Neymar told Brazilian television this weekend, in an interview as sweetly timed, as it turned out, as one of his runs into an opposition penalty area. No trio of soccer players seem as content as Neymar, Luis Suarez and the returning Lionel Messi do right now, none as irresistible.
Neymar put the case that Cristiano Ronaldo, the current holder of the award for the world’s number one footballer might be ready for replacing by any of Barcelona’s forwards, just as all three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar appeared on the scoresheet in the 4-0 win against Real Sociedad, and seven days after Neymar and Suarez had scored three of the goals in Barca’s 4-0 thrashing of Ronaldo’s Madrid at the Bernabeu stadium. Neymar, who has recently been studiously discreet about seeming boastful in most of what he utters in this, the form of his life in club soccer, is entitled to a little self-congratulation, although his suggestions will not be heard with much enthusiasm at Madrid.
A wounded Real, by winning 2-0 at Eibar in front of fewer than 6,000 spectators at the most modestly budgeted team in Spain’s Primera División, kept their gap from la Liga leaders Barcelona at six points, but continue to find themselves impoverished by comparison to a rampant Barca. Suarez, executor of two of the goals that beat Madrid a week ago, scored a sumptuous volley against Sociedad; he has 12 goals now in La Liga and is registering them with an enviable consistency.
Madrid’s answer to the Uruguayan Suarez, the South American they signed in the summer of 2014, the Colombian James Rodriguez, meanwhile continues to be the focus of scrutiny at his club; it’s not because of any doubts about James’s ability, but how Madrid can best use him. “He was superb against Eibar,” insisted Rafa Benitez, the Madrid head coach, who has been criticized by both James himself and the Spanish media for leaving the gifted James out of his starting line-ups in the last month.
James’s last goal in a winning cause for Madrid was back in August. Suarez is winning games every two weeks for Barca. Gareth Bale’s last goal in any match for Madrid before Sunday had been in August, too, so there was some relief for Benitez and the Madrid president, Florentino Perez, in seeing the sport’s most expensive recruit, Bale, meet Luka Modric’s cross with a header to put Madrid 1-0 ahead against a well-organized Eibar shortly before half-time. Bale’s lack of impact until then is still bound to be an issue for a Madrid with low confidence, and it is a still a bigger issue whenever Bale is likened to the man Barcelona recruited in the same summer, 2013, that Madrid paid Tottenham Hotspur well over €100m for Bale.
That man is Neymar. He may have cost nearly as much – so obscure and concealed were the original details of the deal that brought the Brazilian to Camp Nou from Santos that the true figure is still a matter of speculation, and indeed investigation – as Bale, but the relative value of Neymar and Bale is hardly an argument right now. Neymar, with two goals on Saturday, eased himself further ahead of challengers in the race to be la Liga’s leading scorer, the Pichichi, this season. His total of goals in the league so far is 14, Suarez next best on 12.
Ronaldo, who for the last six years has contested the prize of la Liga’s leading scorer exclusively with Messi, has nine goals so far, his latest the penalty he converted against Eibar to confirm Madrid’s win and a comfortable three points towards their pursuit of Barcelona. Messi, playing his first 90 minutes in la Liga since picking up a ligament injury in September, is still chasing him. He scored his fourth of the league season in the 89th minute against Sociedad, from a Neymar cross, after a 20-minute spell in which Neymar and Suarez had very obviously tried to cultivate opportunities for Messi. “These three,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique observed of his enviable attacking trio, “think the party isn’t over until all of them have scored at least once.”
Is the party over already for the Liga title? Barcelona lead Atletico Madrid, in second place, by four points. A pre-season dark horse in the race, Valencia, lost their head coach on Sunday, when Nuno, the Portuguese, quit after the 1-0 defeat to Sevilla. Real Madrid, where Benitez feels insecure in his post, sit in third place in the table, still reeling from the humiliation against Barcelona on matchday 12.
They have heard bad news since then, too. Karim Benzema, the center-forward, is facing legal difficulties in his native France following his being linked to an alleged blackmail attempt on his France international colleague Mathieu Valbuena. Madrid are braced for a period where he may be unavailable. So they’ll need goals from elsewhere. Their strikers have some catching-up to do. So far this season, Barcelona’s Neymar, Suarez and Messi have scored more times in La Liga than all Madrid’s players between them.