By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Editor
He has been described by some as the best player ever. Lionel Messi is a fixture in Barcelona's starting side and ever since he moved permanently into the centre in 2009-10, the Catalan club's other forwards have been forced to fight for the two wide berths alongside the Argentine. Many have tried and failed, others have come and gone, but more than two years on, question marks remain over which two players should line up either side of the Camp Nou's finest footballer.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Bojan Krkic, Jeffren Suarez and Ibrahim Afellay all failed to hold down a spot in the Catalans' starting XI and have since moved on, but five forwards continue to fight it out for a place up front with Messi at Barcelona - as well as one or two midfielders, too.
Alexis Sanchez appears a logical choice on the right flank, but the Chilean himself admits he has yet to hit the heights at Camp Nou. The former Udinese forward is taking his time to adapt at Barca and, more than a year after his move from Serie A, the jury is still out on the South American. Alexis has gained a reputation for diving and is seen by some as too much of an individualist for Barca's collective unit. Speaking at his first press conference since joining the club last week, Alexis claimed he would give himself only a '5' so far at Camp Nou. And that is not good enough to merit a starting spot at the moment.
Youngster Isaac Cuenca is another alternative on the right. The winger impressed in the first team last season but has been sidelined since May and is still on the comeback trail. Upon his return, he should be pushing for a place in the side.
At the moment, however, Pedro looks the best bet on the right. The Tenerife-born winger has returned to form following an injury-hit 2011-12 in which he also suffered a loss of form before ending the campaign on a high note with two goals in Barca's 3-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Copa del Rey.
On the left, meanwhile, Tito Vilanova has several very different options. Cristian Tello has stepped up following an inconsistent first season in the first team, and a poor performance in last term's loss at home to Real Madrid. The youngster was sensational as Barca came from behind to beat Spartak Moscow 3-2 and is probably the man on form at the moment.
However, Vilanova also has the luxury of being able to select Andres Iniesta (on the verge of a comeback following a four-match injury lay-off) in an advanced role if he opts for Cesc Fabregas alongside Xavi in midfield, while utility man Adriano is another option - the Brazilian can play anywhere down the left side and has looked impressive further forward when called upon in that position.
And then there is David Villa. The Spain striker has returned from a broken leg sustained last December but is being eased back into the fray by Barca. The former Valencia forward has already appeared five times from the bench this term, though, and scored three. A recent argument with Messi in the 2-0 win over Granada set the alarm bells ringing, but the two celebrated together in the 3-2 success at Sevilla on Saturday and all appears back to normal. Villa netted the late winner in that match and his goals give the Catalans' an added threat they had been missing in his absence.
As he approaches full fitness, then, expect Villa to reclaim his place in the side, although Tello remains an attractive alternative and Pedro can also switch to the left to accommodate Alexis if necessary.
In conclusion, Vilanova is likely to continue to rotate his forwards as Barca attack on three fronts this term. But, despite the emergence of Tello and Cuenca, the arrival of Alexis and the possibility of starting Cesc (in the centre, if Messi is rested) or Iniesta in advanced roles, it is still Messi plus two. And the much-heralded MVP (Messi, Villa, Pedro), still looks like the best bet.