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The irresistible complex of playing alongside Lionel Messi

Only a selection of people have had the honour, but does it eventually hold them back?

“I am so excited to see Messi during training, I think I am just going to pass every ball to him, haha!”

That’s Frenkie de Jong speaking, the new Barcelona hotshot waxing lyrical a few weeks ago about the prospect of linking up with Lionel Messi in a few months.

And the Messi effect can’t be understated.

I’d quite like to play with Lionel too one day

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I’d quite like to play with Lionel too one day

Messi’s superhuman status means younger players – his disciples – will move hell or high water just to get the chance to line up alongside him before that sad day comes when he eventually hangs up his boots.

Some players, Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba for example, thrive in Messi’s presence, relishing the role of bridesmaid.

But others with perhaps loftier individual intentions are sentenced to the shadows.

Thunder buddies for life

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Thunder buddies for life

The bigger egos among them jump ship, dissatisfied with playing second fiddle.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic famously fell out with Pep Guardiola during his eventful two years in Catalonia just as Messi was first hitting his dizzy heights.

While Zlatan squandered several easy chances away at Real Zaragoza, Messi duly dispatched a textbook hat-trick in the same game to emphasise the gulf in happiness between the two players.

Once upon a time

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Once upon a time

Guardiola’s switch to accommodate Messi in more of a central position duly consigned the Swede to the sidelines – and he wasn’t exactly one to grin and bear marginalisation.

Then there’s Neymar.

The Brazilian, alongside Messi and Suarez, helped form the most destructive and spellbinding front three in recent times. But it wasn’t enough.

Goals galore

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Goals galore

Neymar was told if he wanted to win the Ballon d’Or he had to go it alone; in other words escape Messi’s shadow and prove to the world he could inspire a team all by himself.

Unlike Zlatan, Neymar’s departure hasn’t worked out that way as the Brazilian has fallen down the pecking order and slipped to 12th in the overall award rankings in 2018.

In more recent times the trials and tribulations of another Samba star, Philippe Coutinho, are pertinent.

“Sorry boss do you mind giving me the ball occasionally?”

Reuters
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“Sorry boss do you mind giving me the ball occasionally?”

Coutinho was Jurgen Klopp’s creative heartbeat at Liverpool and was expected to fill the void vacated by both Neymar and Andres Iniesta at the Camp Nou.

But Messi isn’t just Barcelona’s main goalscorer, he’s also their chief creator too.

Despite the duo supposedly getting on all hunky dory off the field, Coutinho has failed to strike up an on-field chemistry with his Argentine counterpart.

With Messi shouldering the creative burden, Coutinho looks like a square peg in a round hole and has been hooked before the hour mark on numerous occasions in recent months.

So that begs the question – how will Antoine Griezmann fare?

The next in line?

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The next in line?

Griezmann has been talk of the town this week after Atletico CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin came out and said everyone knew their prized asset was joining the Catalans this summer.

Barca are preparing for life after Suarez with the Uruguayan likely to head for pastures new in 12 months time.

On paper Griezmann looks like an ideal replacement.

Sure he’s been the star man at Atletico but Diego Simeone’s side are far more collectively motivated than relying on individual magic.

At Barca the World Cup winner would have to accept Messi’s superiority, but his time under Simeone suggests he has the minerals and humility to do so.

Griezmann is more Suarez than Neymar and equally versatile enough to play anywhere while Messi remains front and centre.

So will this be the blossoming of another brilliant Barca bromance? Or will the Frenchman slip into the shadows like many before him?