It all went wrong for Barcelona. Lionel Messi failed to make any mark against Atletico Madrid for the sixth successive match and this time, Neymar couldn't save the Blaugrana either. Individually ineffective and collectively contained as the Catalans crashed out of the Champions League, the jury is still out on whether the club's two biggest stars can thrive together at this level in the same side.
Neymar made all the right noises when he moved to Barcelona from Santos last May. "I'm here to help Messi," he said at his unveiling at Camp Nou. But the very need for his signing in the first place seemed to go against everything Pep Guardiola had sought in his time in charge: namely, to make Messi the main man.
To help the Argentine feel relaxed and allow him to perform at his brilliant best, Guardiola dispensed with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, later, removed David Villa from the starting XI. It was all about Messi and understandably so. If the best player in the world is at your club, it makes sense to give him all that he needs to succeed.
He didn't need Neymar. Sandro Rosell, however, was eager to make his mark as president with a marquee summer signing. In the end, ironically, the Brazilian's arrival brought about Rosell's resignation and his downfall. And although many Barca fans may ultimately be pleased about that, they will be much more concerned over Messi's malaise at the Vicente Calderon.
"We were looking for him to go one-on-one down the right but he didn't participate much," Martino said afterwards. "He had two good chances at the beginning of the second half, [but] we felt it wasn't prudent - due to the way Atletico mark - for him to participate too much."
Hardly a ringing vote of confidence.
In such situations, Guardiola always told journalists that Messi was the world's best and that he never performed badly. Pep knew Messi needed his confidence boosted and duly obliged - even when the Argentine had played poorly.
Martino finds himself in a delicate spot. Under pressure from sponsors and from the Barca board to pick Neymar for the big matches (at the continual expense of Pedro in particular and also Alexis Sanchez), Tata needs to coax the finest form from Messi too. And the pair are still not thriving together when it matters most.
Neymar, as Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari stated recently, is somewhat stifled by Barca's tactics and cannot play his natural game - particularly when Messi is in the side. It is no coincidence that the Brazilian's best run in the team came in the build-up to Christmas, when the Argentine was sidelined through injury.
|THE SHOCKING STATS FROM WEDNESDAY
| MESSI AGAINST ATLETI
ATTEMPTS ON TARGET
|NEYMAR AGAINST ATLETI|
ATTEMPTS ON TARGET
"Neymar hasn't shone at Barca because they play different to what he is used to," Scolari said. "He's better when he has space, but Barcelona have him playing on the right."
The Brazilian began in that position in the Clasico at Real Madrid recently and he won a crucial penalty (converted by Messi) in the 4-3 win. His overall performance, however, was woeful. Likewise Messi in the season's first Clasico at Camp Nou. Barca won that one 2-1 thanks in large part to a dynamic display from Neymar (and a wonder goal from Alexis). But out on the right, albeit short of full fitness, Leo looked lost.
Against Atleti, Barca had scored just twice in four games this term prior to Wednesday, with both of those strikes netted by Neymar. Much more concerned with stopping Messi, Simeone has been happy on each occasion to give the Brazilian more space out wide. Together, however, the two have been unable to combine effectively and while Neymar has scored twice, Messi has no goals nor assists to his name in six fixtures versus the Rojiblancos. That, for the four-time Ballon d'Or winner, is a drought of almost unprecedented proportions.
Messi has endured an unsettling season at the Catalan club, with injury interruptions, a tax case and other off-field problems aplenty at Camp Nou. Neymar's arrival on the scene has also hit the Argentine's self confidence, however, and taken away some of his star power.
The Brazilian, meanwhile, has blown hot and cold in his first season in Spain, showing moments of sheer class at times but producing poor performances as well, looking lightweight on occasions with his fragile frame and earning himself a reputation for theatrics in and around the penalty area.
At just 22, he has time to bulk up and become the player Barca hopes will one day be a successor to Messi. Before that, however, the club desires that his association with the Argentine will blossom into something special. But against Atleti, the two were unable to inspire the team when it mattered most and, nine months in, doubts still remain over whether the pair's partnership can work at the very highest level.
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