It’s happening again, isn’t it? Or at least it might well be.
In the same week that Leicester City signalled its intent to be more than a passing Premier League fad—via a dramatic 3-1 win away to now former title favourites Manchester City—an equally powerful declaration of strength had already taken place in Spain.
Barcelona had only gone and knocked in seven—seven!—goals against Valencia in a Copa del Rey semifinal. Lionel Messi got three, Luis Suarez grabbed four and Neymar, mercifully, satisfied himself with less tangible forms of torment, like hubristic penalty misses.
The suspicion at this point has to be that with this all-powerful front three operating at almost full capacity the Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey treble is Barca’s to lose, for the second season in a row. The fact appears to be that: “individually, collectively and in direct combination” M(essi) S(Suarez) and N(eymar) are magnificent to degrees that no one else around now—and very rarely in history—can get very close to at all.
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And the numbers provide a sense of scale to the whole thing.
Despite Messi’s two-month injury layoff early on this season, the MSN combo has already scored 81 goals in all competitions; more than a decent number of normal teams have scored in total. Luis Enrique, meanwhile, has just managed Barcelona and MSN for the hundredth time, collecting his 80th win and equalling Pep Guardiola’s peak-2011-era run of 28 games unbeaten.
Who, or what, could stop them? With the eventual arrivals of Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal in January, the squad around Messi, Suarez and Neymar is now equipped well enough to harness rather than hinder their magic powers. With Real Madrid still figuring out if Zinedine Zidane is its long-term solution to its sporadic collapses in form, their closest Spanish rivals are not at the moment a powerful force, and their closest European rivals, Bayern Munich, are struggling with important injuries to the same effect. The path seems relatively clear and even if it wasn’t you’d probably still back them to win out, based on their recent showings.
Back in that Valencia game, one goal of the seven stood out as a microcosm for what everyone else is up against. Andres Iniesta burst forward, slipped a ball to Neymar, who flicked it backwards first time to Suarez, who also flicked it backwards first time to Messi, who took a touch and flicked it in. It was sensational play, emerging at the kind of sensational speed that renders opponents and pundits-turned-managers helpless. And it was also compelling viewing, unless you were Gary Neville in the Valencia dugout.
There is only one downer here. Not a gripe with the mercurial brilliance MSN offer, but a worry and a lingering sense of unease about the footballing context that allows their potentially unprecedented dominance to exist.
If Barcelona and MSN do come good on their promise to win consecutive trebles (not to mention the FIFA World Club Cup), then they’re in danger of making the miraculous mundane. This is a cliché that’s usually utilised as a compliment, but should it be? Once the extraordinary transforms into the ordinary, is it as enjoyable?
In some ways it feels a little unhealthy that trebles could even potentially turn into something that appears regularly. It almost feels as though they’re less special that way. And already, after last season, it is just that little bit easier to take for granted the excellence of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, the praise just that little bit less excited, even if, obviously, there’s no danger of these guys becoming “underappreciated” any time soon.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 9, 2016
Of course this slight downer isn’t exactly or directly the fault of MSN or Barcelona for being so good. This isn’t a criticism of them; instead it’s a concern for football’s broader structural setup—the one that allows and even encourages a scenario where three of the world’s best four players could end up working at the same club. We get the benefit of seeing the magic that they can conjure up together—something a fairer setup wouldn’t allow—but as it marks out a path of unprecedented dominance we also realise that we lose something too.
In the past, trebles were amazing to watch both because of the sporting prowess that allowed them to happen, but also because of the tension that underpinned them: they never felt inevitable. Messi, Suarez and Neymar have the first point but are at risk of not offering the second. That, in and of itself, is amazing. But there’s at least room to question if it’s a sustainable form of entertainment, or if making the extraordinary look ordinary will soon feel like a bad thing?
For now, all we can do is try our best to enjoy their brilliance, and maybe console ourselves with the fact that we currently have both MSN and Leicester City near the top of our game. Or, in other words, the best of both worlds.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter