Forget Messi And Ronaldo, This Could Be Neymar's El Clasico


The season's first Clasico arrives on Saturday and its traditional two headline acts, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, may be in real danger of slipping down the bill.

The perfect specimen that is Ronaldo couldn't have timed the promotion of his new documentary more perfectly for the broadcasters. One moment there he is, all winning smiles on the Jonathan Ross show; the next it's Clasico time at the Bernabeu and guess who's stood on his toes in the warm up?

Messi, meanwhile, is not even sure to start. Some thought he'd miss the game altogether, but the good folks at adidas put paid to that theory but announcing his brand new boots this week. "Hey Lionel, see that big bag of cash we keep giving you? You're playing in the Clasico mate," they may have told him. "Oi Luis Enrique, he's playing mate," they may have added.

The great one is back in training, so expect at least a place on the Barcelona bench. It wouldn't be entirely shocking if Messi played from the start, but Barca are unlikely to throw caution to the wind here. This, after all, is a player who is worth rather a lot of cash and future trophies to them.

Besides, Enrique won't be as desperate as you might think to chance Messi in the manner that England typically chance Wayne Rooney at a major tournament. Enrique's Barca team have been without the atomic flea since September 26 and they've coped rather well to be honest.

Naturally, there were fears Messi's injury could prompt a dangerous dip in results for his team. The irresistible MSN trident of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar was broken up and Barcelona - like every other team on the planet - weren't exactly stacked with obvious Messi replacements to fill the void.

They needn't have worried. In the nine games since Messi tore a ligament in his knee, Barcelona have scored 21 times and lost just once - away at Sevilla in La Liga. Messi returns with his team on top of the table and all-but guaranteed their regular spot in the Champions League knockout stages. It's almost enough to wonder if they might give him the same time off next year.

To whom do Barcelona owe the greatest debt in Messi's absence? Well for that prize we turn to the man who's scored 10 of those goals and is threatening his best season yet in Spain, a certain brilliant Brazilian by the name of Neymar.

This turn of events is not wholly surprising.

You might remember Neymar did pretty well last time round, scoring in both legs of a Champions League semi-final and again in the final as his team wrapped up the treble. Neymar finished the 2014-15 campaign with 39 goals in total and the culmination of his season saw the Brazilian scale new heights as a match winner.

An elevated platform has not been wasted and a new level of responsibility has far from shackled Neymar's genius. His level of influence in Messi's absence can only speak to a player who is thriving under pressure.

Last season we saw Neymar return from heartbreaking injury at his home World Cup to win it all with Barcelona. You might suggest there were similarities there to the 1999 treble David Beckham won at Manchester United after suffering a very different kind of footballing torture at the 1998 World Cup with England. You don't bounce back like that unless your mind is a match for your talent.

Doubts over Neymar's maturity have surely run their course this season - gone to die with the doubts over whether he could thrive in Europe, and the doubts over whether moving to Barca was best for his evolution, and the doubts over whether he was physically strong enough, and the doubts over whether he had the desire and mentality to cut in with the big boys.

Doubts are there to be wiped out, and that's exactly what Neymar has done to every single one of those mentioned. Still he climbs, higher with each breathtaking moment of influence.

It was 2011 when I first got a glimpse as his talent, in a Brazil friendly being held at Fulham's Craven Cottage. Neymar was 19 years old and raw, but the confidence flowed through him that night as it always will do. Taking up position in the iconic No.10 role, he sprayed passes around and barked orders at the far more experienced team-mates around him. His frame was slight, but his presence was anything but.

Four years on, as we preview Saturday's battle of the Bernabeu, don't be surprised if Neymar's undeniable talent is yet again to the fore as Barcelona take the good fight to Rafa Benitez's Real Madrid.

The headline writers will look to Ronaldo and Messi, but a star continues to rise in Neymar and one day soon he may well be worthy of the billing these two greats have earned for themselves. He can start the campaign by playing a lead role in a Barcelona win at the home of their most bitter rivals.