By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Editor
In the last three-and-a-half seasons under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona have become accustomed to sweeping aside all before them.
Sunday's Club World Cup win over Santos made it 13 titles out of a possible 16. No top team has won so much silverware within such a short space of time and the Catalans are running out of rivals. So, too, is Lionel Messi.
Twice in a week, the astonishing Argentine has vanquished his adversaries to prove - if there had remained any doubt - that he remains the main man. Last Saturday, a Messi masterclass had helped Barca claim Clasico cheer against Real Madrid with a 3-1 win at the Santiago Bernabeu. And in the process, the 24-year-old put a misfiring Cristiano Ronaldo firmly in his place - that of the world's second-best player. For while Messi shone in the capital, the Portuguese squandered two key opportunities in what was a quite miserable performance.
Ronaldo returned to form on Saturday night with an impressive hat-trick in the 6-2 win at Sevilla to confirm his brilliance, but few will forget he had been unable to produce against the very best team there is - and versus the finest footballer on the planet.
Victory over Madrid had hauled Barca back into the title race as the Catalans closed the gap on their fiercest foes. Guardiola's men are now just three points adrift at the top of La Liga following Real's Seville success on Saturday. But come Sunday, the Blaugrana had bigger things on their mind. As did Messi.
Another tasty performance | Messi outclassed Ronaldo in the ClasicoIn fact, as Madrid's stars walked off the Sanchez Pizjuan surface just before midnight on Saturday, the boys from Barcelona were tucked up in bed as they prepared to face Santos in their bid to secure a second Club World Cup in three editions.
Messi had been the match-winner in their 2009 triumph over Estudiantes, a win which saw Barca become the first team to win all six trophies on offer in the space of little more than a year. The triumph had also been the Catalans' first world crown and had been enough to reduce Guardiola to tears.
But three years earlier, it was Messi who was in tears as he and his team-mates went down to Brazilian side Internacional in the tournament's 2006 edition. Back in Japan and against Brazilian opposition once more, the Argentine was determined to avoid a repeat of that experience. And there was an intriguing sub-plot in the game against Santos: Neymar.
|"I don't know if Barcelona are unbeatable, but they are the best team in the world. Today, we learned what it is to play football. We lost, but maybe in a year we can return and be champions."
- Neymar on Sunday
Santos' sensation may only be 19, but the young forward has already captured the attention of both Barca and Madrid, with a move to Europe seemingly only a matter of time. Comparisons with Messi have been made, with the player himself claiming he can become even better than his fellow South American star.
But he isn't yet and that became crystal clear on Sunday as the man who ran the show was not new kid Neymar, but maestro Messi. The 24-year-old gave Barca the lead with a lovely lobbed finish and tormented the South American champions with some of his trademark traverses through the Brazilian backline. Causing constant concerns to the men in white, for the second time in a week, Messi made Santos look ordinary as he rounded off the scoring with the fine fourth goal in a comprehensive victory. And this time it wasn't Messi, or Guardiola, but Neymar who was left in tears.
The Brazilian had been forced to feed off scraps, unable to lift his side as a player of his calibre would be expected to do. And one fluffed one-on-one opportunity aside, there really was very little from the youngster to suggest he is on a par with Messi. Quite simply, he is not - at least not yet.
|"Messi has his personality and I have mine. He has his game and I have mine. I also play in a big club like him. We are different in every aspect. But right now, he is the best."
- Cristiano Ronaldo in September
Other than Messi (who set a new record by becoming the first player to both score and assist in all six major competitions in one calendar year) the finest footballer on the park had been one of his team-mates: Xavi. The midfield master had controlled the ball exquisitely and subsequently set up the Argentine for Barca's first goal, and added a splendid second as the Catalans confirmed their class.
Xavi won the Silver Ball for the competition's second-best player. And deservedly so. But there had been no doubt about the finest footballer on show. That, of course, was Messi. It was another peerless performance from this brilliant Barcelona as the Catalans continue to conquer all before them. And against the team made famous by 'O Rei' Pele in the 1960s, the Argentine showed that these days, there is only one true king.
So for now, and probably for some time to come, Ronaldo and Neymar remain mere pretenders to Messi's throne.
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