Barcelona’s perfect start to the new La Liga campaign continued at the weekend, with the reigning Spanish and European champions overcoming a potential banana-skin fixture to beat Atlético Madrid at the Estadio Vicente Calderón.
The home side’s chances received a significant boost with news that Ballon d’Or frontrunner Lionel Messi was named on the substitute’s bench due to the recent birth of his second son.
Luis Enrique’s decision robbed the Catalan visitors of the world’s best player, with an emphasis on others to fulfil the Argentine’s sizeable shoes.
With Messi unavailable, Neymar was given his chance to be the Blaugrana’s main man in attack.
The Brazil international is undoubtedly one of the world’s best players and in almost any other team would surely be the superstar to build a side around.
On this occasion, breaking down the stubborn Atleti rearguard and renowned pressing style of Diego Simeone’s men was handed to Neymar, with the former Santos star have contrasting fortunes in being Barcelona’s talisman.
In the first-half it looked like the Brazilian was fully aware of his opportunity to make a statement in Messi’s absence and was guilty of trying to do too much with the ball at his feet.
There were times when a pass would have been the sensible option, but Neymar looked to go himself and break the deadlock by himself.
One specific chance, where Luis Suarez was free and should have been given the opportunity to score, went begging as the Brazil international showed a selfish side that is the difference between himself and Messi.
The South American attacker did display his incredible technical ability by scoring his side’s first goal; an inch-perfect direct free-kick into the roof of Jan Oblak’s goal.
This immaculate technique shows just how good Neymar is and coupled with the awful free-kick attempt Messi had after coming off the bench, highlights that there is little between the players’ dead-ball abilities.
However, with the Argentine entering the fray and completely dominating affairs, scoring the winner in the process, Messi’s importance to Barcelona was painstakingly clear.
The difference between having Messi as the team’s heartbeat and Neymar is the four-time Ballon d’Or winner’s decision making and awareness of those around him.
The Rosario-born star completely changed the match when he came off the bench, with Atlético struggling to close the attacker down and unable to prevent him from bringing Barcelona’s other stars into the game.
Even Neymar, who had surely wanted to make an individual impression, yielded to Messi’s dominance when his team-mate entered the fray.
The Brazilian was quick to pass to Messi on every occasion the Argentine wanted the ball, where he had spurned other team-mates in the first half.
Neymar has found out for his nation that having the expectations of an entire football-mad nation on your shoulders can be a major responsibility and bring a level of pressure that is difficult to perform in.
Messi has done it time and time again for Barcelona, delivering on the biggest stage repeatedly and rightly earning a place amongst football’s all-time greats.
Neymar has the raw ability and talent to be one of the best of a generation, but comparing his performance against Atlético with Messi’s second-half cameo shows just how superior the Argentine is at the current moment.