BARCELONA — Two years to the day since Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar all scored as Barcelona beat Atletico Madrid 3-1 in La Liga — a win seen as vital in turning around a then-stuttering season — the “MSN” repeated the trick on Wednesday at Camp Nou as Luis Enrique’s side overturned a first-leg deficit to beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1 and progress to the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.
In January 2015, Barca had lost at Real Sociedad in their first game of the year, Messi was reportedly at odds with Luis Enrique, Andoni Zubizarreta was sacked as sporting director and president Josep Maria Bartomeu called an early election to “reduce the tension” surrounding the club.
Things aren’t that bad this year but they would have taken another turn for the worse if things had gone wrong against Athletic. Last week’s defeat at San Mames and dropped points at Villarreal in La Liga had led to a week of negative press, with Gerard Pique’s complaints about referees writing headlines for all the wrong reasons.
So often when things have gone wrong under Luis Enrique, though, Messi, Suarez and Neymar have been there to save their side. So it was against Ernesto Valverde’s side.
Suarez opened the scoring after 35 minutes with a stunning volley, taking his tally to 100 goals since joining the club from Liverpool. Neymar then doubled the Blaugrana lead from the penalty spot three minutes into the second half. Enric Saborit drew the scores level on aggregate but that only set the stage for Messi, who won the tie with his third successful free kick in as many games.
But while it was Messi who scored the tie’s decisive goal, just as significant were the contributions from Suarez and Neymar. Prior to the game, Messi had scored Barcelona’s only two goals so far in 2017 and concerns will always exist about a reliance on him when backs are against the wall. An 11-game scoring drought had raised questions about Neymar while Suarez, despite a regular flow of goals, has not been at his best.
Both responded, though. Not since Laszlo Kubala in the 1950s has a Barcelona player reached a century of goals as quickly as Suarez. Kubala took just 103 games and only Mariano Martin, who played for the club in the 1940s, reached the landmark quicker than the Hungarian — he only needed 99 games. Suarez has taken 120.
Indeed, the Uruguayan’s 100th goal for the Catalan club should have come before it did. After a week of Pique bemoaning the lack of decisions in Barca’s favour, there would have been outrage if an incorrectly disallowed first half goal had proved costly. Andres Iniesta brilliantly played in Neymar, who was onside, and he squared for Suarez, who was also onside.
The assistant referee felt otherwise but the flag did stay down shortly after when the same two men combined. Neymar’s lofted cross was thumped home on the volley by Suarez and Barcelona’s tails were up.
It was typical of Neymar’s recent form that he was once again the creator. While Suarez has flourished in front of goal, despite not playing constantly well, Neymar has had the opposite problem: His good play has not been rewarded with goals.
There have been trademark dribbles and many assists and many teams have resorted to fouls to stop him, but the net had not rippled for the Brazilian since Oct. 19. However, with Barca buoyant from Suarez’s opener — the 300th goal scored by the “MSN” trident since they came together been at the club — Neymar ended his search for a goal at 1,021 minutes when he won and scored a penalty.
An all-too-familiar lack of Barcelona focus let Athletic briefly back into the match, before Messi once again became the hero. Victory against Atletico in 2015 proved the catalyst for the Treble. That sort of success looks a long way out of reach for this current Barca side but, then again, it did then.
Luis Enrique’s side are still in all three competitions and with Messi, Suarez and Neymar, anything remains possible.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.