Football

Messi hat-trick puts Neymar in shade

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Messi was in majestic form (©GettyImages)
Messi was in majestic form (©GettyImages).

Brazil took on Argentina on Saturday, and whilst the match was excellent, the focus of 80,000 Americans was largely trained on Neymar and Lionel Messi.

The two stars, along with Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, are the best players in the world. Most believe one stands head and shoulders above the rest but some, including Pele, see Neymar as the game's grandmaster. The pick is a bold one for many reasons, before you even begin to compare the young Brazilian's achievements to that of Messi's or Ronaldo's.

Neymar has three seasons of Brazilian league football under his belt. Casting aside the relative merits of the league, three seasons is hardly enough time to build up a resume comparable to that one the world's top performers.

In that time, Neymar has neither swept the individual or team awards, domestically or in continental competition. He has certainly dominated the Campeonato Paulista, but that is simply the Sao Paulo state league, a 20-team division including a number of extremely weak sides.

In fact, the only reason Neymar is mentioned in the same breath as Messi is because he enjoys the support of a particularly influential footballing figure. Pele consistently advances his cause, insisting on his compatriots superiority even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.


 

Pele, as co-winner of FIFA's Player of the Century award, enjoys a deservedly lofty reputation in the game, and his opinion rightly holds a tremendous amount of sway, especially in Brazil. But his past exploits on the pitch have not translated into a gift for objectively assessing talent.

Unfortunately, Pele's repeated assertions that Neymar is Messi's superior instead smacks of that age-old Argentina versus Brazil rivalry. Maradona and Pele previously personified the battle for continental supremacy, a battle which has now been artificially imposed on Messi and Neymar. The two icons of football's past live on through their present-day footballing reincarnations.

According to Pele: "In a straight comparison Neymar is more complete, more technically proficient than Messi because he has more at his disposal."

Messi instead is restricted to simply moving down the left, if Pele is to be believed. While the Barca forward is less ambidextrous than the rubbery-legged Brazilian star, the fact he is almost completely unstoppable while dribbling with his left foot demonstrates just how unique his talent is. Players can predict how he will play, but they still cannot stop it.

Never was this more evident than in the recent match between the two nations at the MetLife Stadium in America to watch Argentina and Brazil face-off, or more likely to watch two of the most exciting players grace the same pitch.

Neymar played well, provided an assist and teased the Argentine defence in typically flamboyant fashion. But Messi scored a hat-trick. The Argentine showed all the ability, the flicks, tricks and dribbles associated with his counterpart, but married the flair with ice-cold finishing.

His third was a magical strike, and a worthy winner for Argentina. Receiving the ball on the left flank, just inside Brazil's half, he skipped past Marcelo and was 10 yards clear before the Brazilian defender even realised where he was. Driving in onto his favoured left foot, Messi shifted, teased and tempted the defence, before lashing a swerving shot into the top corner.

"We're lucky he's Argentinean," said Messi's head coach Alejandro Sabella. "We can benefit from that."

They certainly can and surely will - Messi took his tally to 26 goals for his country, just eight shy of Maradona's total, a player with whom the comparisons seem more suitable at this stage in each player's career. As such, the comparisons between Messi and Maradona are understandable, interesting even, but will always be skewered by the awkward problem of history. The comparisons with Neymar are unhindered by differences in generation, but at this stage they remain premature.

"Maybe Neymar is the best player in the world," said Maradona recently. "But only if you say that Messi is from a different planet." To many, it seems like he truly is, and on Saturday Messi reduced the comparison to futile debate.

As it stands, the Barca is the undisputed best player in the world. His achievements, individually and collectively, both this season and across his career, are unmatched in his generation.

Neymar, of course, possesses the ability to match, and possibly overhaul Messi, but for now, even with a glowing reference from Pele, he remains in the shadow of the Argentinian.

This summer's Olympics offers Neymar the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his esteemed South American colleague by taking home a gold medal. But until the Brazilian moves to Europe, and competes in the world's best leagues, against the world's best players, including Messi, he will remain a step short of a place among the game's elite.

 

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