You can break modern football into two separate periods. BM and AM.
The period leading up to 16 October 2004 is Before Messi. Any time following is After Messi. Because, let’s face it, since Lionel Messi came into the game, football hasn’t quite been the same.
But he’s not done it all on his own. Believe it or not, he’s actually had a bit of help along the way. So here’s to the attacking trios he’s been a part of over the years.
The teacher and the apprentice (2004-2008)
As teachers go, they don’t come much better than Ronaldinho, who took Messi under his wing when he came into the first-team setup.
Ronaldinho reportedly called Messi his ‘little brother’ and showed no jealousy when telling everyone that the 16-year-old would be a better player than he was.
If the combination of Ronaldinho in his prime and Messi full of youthful exuberance wasn’t hard enough to deal with for opposition defenders, there was also Samuel Eto’o to think about.
The Cameroonian didn’t have the same flair as his South American team-mates but he more than made up for it with pace, power and unerring accuracy when finishing from every angle imaginable.
Big boots to fill (2008-2009)
Ronaldinho’s exit to AC Milan couldn’t have been easy for Messi to deal with, but there was no time to cry about it.
Finally rid of the niggling injuries that had interrupted the start of his career, Messi, along with Eto’o and new arrival Thierry Henry scored a record 100 goals in all competitions.
His game was taken to another level under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, swapping between a right-wing role and a withdrawn ‘false striker’.
The incisiveness of Messi, Eto’o and Henry’s play helped Barcelona to a first treble in the history of Spanish football.
Clash of the titans (2009-2010)
On paper, the combination of Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and academy graduate Pedro had everything needed to succeed.
But, despite winning La Liga, a Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup, the duo of Ibra and Messi never clicked.
If only all unsuccessful strike partnerships were that effective.
One take on the ‘failure’ is that both players were too used to being the main man, through which everything goes through, to play in the same side.
It probably didn’t help when Ibrahimovic suggested that Guardiola ‘didn’t have any balls’ in front of a packed changing room though.
Leader, legend, Lionel (2010-2013)
By 2010 the Argentinian had won the Ballon d’Or and firmly established himself as one of the best players in world football.
But, playing alongside the relatively inexperienced Pedro and David Villa, who’d never won a league title, Messi had to prove himself as a leader.
We needn’t have worried though.
Pedro’s directness, Villa’s uncanny knack of timing his runs and Messi’s all-round greatness was a runaway success, responsible for two league titles and a Champions League.
The three most feared letters in football (2014-2017)
If you want to unnerve any defender in world football just whisper three letters of the alpabet. MSN.
Luis Suarez arrived in Spain in 2014, although a ban for biting kept him out until Ocotber, when he started alongside Neymar and Messi in El Clasico.
It was a slightly false dawn, with Suarez withdrawn in the second-half as Barcelona lost 3-1.
But after that it was a non-stop festival of goals and nutmegs.
These three redefined what it means to be an attacking trio.
And then Neymar left.
Three becomes four (2017-present)
How do you solve a problem like no Neymar?
That was the question posed to Ernesto Valverde when he took over at Barca.
His solution was simple. Sign Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho.
Valverde has stuck with his tried and trusted 4-4-2, meaning Suarez and Messi up top with two wide men behind them.
Injury means we haven’t seen the quartet together consistently yet, but it won’t be long before they’re running riot in world football.
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