With Tata Martino looking on from the sidelines and Messi saving himself for the World Cup, the neutral football fans the world over felt their spirits rise as Diego Godin rose above all else to head in an equaliser. A simple habit of popping up with all important goals, Godin almost won Atletico the Champions League less than a fortnight after winning Atletico Madrid the La Liga title. But first he broke Barca hearts. He broke the Barca hoodoo. The unbeatable and invincible feeling around the club was deflating – Mes Que En Club was just a garb behind which Barca were making shady deals with Brazilian club Santos for Neymar, a veil behind which allegations of tax fraud made the president of the club resign.
All the while, Tata Martino looked on as Barca’s season unraveled. Beginning brightly, the Argentine employed a more astute “mix it up” policy. The players however looked lost as someone tapped Tata on the shoulder and told him quietly “This Is Not The Barca Way”. And lo and behold, the reintroduction of tiki-taka. “Slaves” to the passing game as Pique not so eloquently put it, Barca were turning predictable. And they had been since 2010 when Inter were the first team since Rubin Kazan to give the Catalan juggernaut a genuine scare. Pass and move was being replaced world over by high intensity pressing, quick transitions and a solid defence. Barcelona were regressing instead of progressing and losing motivation, but they always had one man to make a difference. Messi always bailed out Barca. Producing a moment of magic, a dribble here or chipped pass there and all was good in Catalunya.
Then he injured himself. And then once fit, he had a relapse. With the World Cup looming and his best chance for glory with Argentina beckoning, Messi began to wilt for Barca. Allegations that he had lost his love for the game and was becoming lethargic were thrown at him. But he saved himself at the fag end of the club football season and it very nearly paid dividends. A defeated finalist at the World Cup was what Messi had to show for his efforts. He came to Barca with rumours flying about a mega-millions move to some club funded by Middle Eastern Oil Money. Instead he signed a new contract. Again.
While the World Cup was not a total failure for Messi, it was not all about him either. Another player attracted quite the newsprint. Another player bit into Messi’s share of the press pie. That player, you guessed it, is Luis Suarez. The Uruguay striker had just bitten into Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder as if he were a piece of fresh calzone from the ovens of a pizzeria in Naples. Nom nom went Suarez. Boom ban ban went FIFA. Barcelona looked on in quiet admiration at a player with a strong will to win. Whatever the cost. The squeaky clean image already tarnished by the Neymar fiasco (still ongoing in Spanish civil court), the club’s board moved swiftly after Brazil 2014 and snapped up arguably the best striker on offer in football today.
While he may not seem like the typical number 9, Suarez is pretty much the epitome of the modern striker. Agile, good upper body strength. Good with his head, good with both feet, not afraid to use his teeth. I kid of course, the sight of the ball at Suarez’s feet has haunted defenders in the Premier League long enough. Now he will terrorise La Liga. Or such is the hope at Barcelona. With 31 goals in 33 appearances, alongside 12 assists in all competitions for Liverpool last season, Suarez is a man who is used to carrying a team himself. Now at Barca, he will be part of a collective. A South American trident consisting of Neymar, Messi and Suarez (when ban is finally served) shall be a combination of pace, trickery, skill, guile and the will to win unmatched in the world. Make no mistake, Neymar is among the best players under the age of 23 in the world. Suarez and Messi are among the two best at any age in the world right now, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.
But what sets Suarez apart, what makes him different from the Villas and the Ibrahimovics is his self-sacrificing play as well as his never-say-die attitude. Linking up with the decent talents of Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, with Phillippe Coutinho pulling the strings in midfield, saw him play in full beast mode. Seeing him play with Messi and Neymar, with Iniesta and Rakitic pulling the strings for Barca is a thought that causes my mind to go numb with delayed pleasure. I see myself going into a daze as slick passing, dribbling, flicks and turns are converted into goals. But I also see pain. And the potential for heartache.
With Luis Enrique demanding the maximum in fitness and mental stability from his players, all those mentioned above will have to be at the top of their game. If not, he will have no qualms in dropping them. And that is where this could unfurl. An ego battle the likes of which has never been seen before at Camp Nou should not unfold. Suarez and Enrique forming a good respectful relationship should not be disrupted by Messi’s need to function in the center of the attack. If it is, then this could all go to the dogs.
In a season of rebuilding where Barca are finally going for a new approach, with a new coach and plenty of fresh faces, Suarez is arguably the one with the most pressure. But if he responds, if he shows the brilliance that he did on Merseyside, then Spain and Europe beware.
Barcelona just added a lot more bite.