By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – It took Barcelona forwards Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez time to adjust to the loss of their third musketeer Neymar but they have forged on as a fearsome double act more prolific than the combined efforts of most other teams in La Liga.
With Messi the top scorer in Spain’s top flight with 14 goals and Suarez joint-second on 11, only Sevilla, Levante and next opponents Celta Vigo have managed to score more than the deadly South American duo.
Messi has come into his own in his last two outings, putting on an exhibition of free kick taking against Espanyol and ripping Levante apart in last week’s 5-0 thrashing with a hat-trick and two assists.
Suarez, who endured a long goal drought last season as he struggled without the space Neymar’s dazzling runs used to open up for him, has rediscovered the sharpness which led to him scoring a remarkable 40 league goals in the 2015/16 campaign.
He broke the deadlock against Levante by volleying in a Messi cross and also struck against Espanyol, two of seven goals he has scored in his last six league outings, including a hat-trick against Real Madrid.
“Luis and Leo are the best strike partnership in the world right now,” said Barca’s Gerard Pique last week.
“Luis has goals in his veins and we’ve already said everything about Leo. We have a lot of firepower up front.”
The strikers’ combined 25 goals, more than half of Barca’s haul this season, have helped lift the Catalans three points clear of Sevilla and Atletico Madrid at the top of the standings and five ahead of Real Madrid.
Ernesto Valverde’s side will expect to preserve that gap after Saturday’s game with Celta, typically tough opponents at their Balaidos stadium but who usually bring the best out of Barca, and particularly Messi and Suarez, at the Nou Camp.
It was against Celta when Messi audaciously passed to Suarez to score from a penalty in a 6-1 thumping in 2016 in which the Uruguayan scored a hat-trick, while Messi struck twice in 5-0 thrashings of the Galicians in the league and Copa del Rey in the last two years.
Even when Celta managed to hold Barca to a 2-2 draw at the Nou Camp last December, Messi and Suarez both scored.
Celta sacked manager Antonio Mohamed earlier this season and have shown signs of improvement under Miguel Cardoso, rising to ninth in the standings.
Second-placed Sevilla visit Leganes on Sunday, while Atletico Madrid, rocked by reports that Bayern Munich have paid the release clause of their World Cup winning defender Lucas Hernandez, host Espanyol on Saturday.
Real Madrid could lose ground as they are playing Al Ain in the final of FIFA’s Club World Cup on Saturday.
(Reporting by Richard Martin; editing by Martyn Herman)