3 Players Each to Replace Messi, Suarez, Neymar If They Ever Leave Barcelona
All eras come to an end. The nature of football is that even for the greats and the loyal, time or tolerance wears away effectiveness, and a player's stay at a club—however long or loved—will come to its final game.
Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez are two who have both recently had that moment thrust upon them at Barcelona, and the fans' worst fears now have to be that either captain Andres Iniesta or any of the front three—the fabled MSN attack—will be next.
Sooner or later, one of them will be on his way...and how will Barcelona replace those superstars?
We've found three good places to start looking for each replacement: one expensive deal, one younger talent and one alternative option.
Neymar No. 1: Philippe Coutinho
Neymar's direct replacement, like-for-like in many ways, would be Philippe Coutinho. The two Brazilians are similarly talented in one-on-one situations, both love to create and score goals and both make up a core part of the Brazil national team's attack.
Barca's admiration of Coutinho is no secret, but the Liverpool man has just signed a new long-term contract, per the club's website, so it's unlikely that Coutinho will be playing alongside Neymar anytime soon.
But as a replacement if the current No. 11 departs? He has to be on the list of considerations.
Coutinho plays from the left in a front three more often than not, is improving his end product year by year and works tremendously hard off the ball, too.
Neymar No. 2: Thomas Lemar
Perhaps not quite yet a household name across Europe, you can expect all that to change within the next season or two for Thomas Lemar.
The AS Monaco wide man is a phenomenal talent, offering an incredible combination of skill and poise, pace and power, precision and composure. He really does have almost everything in his locker to be one of Europe's top attacking threats in the seasons to come, including set-piece delivery, movement off the ball and the instinct to attack the far post when play is building from the opposite flank.
He operates as a left winger for Monaco but still attacks infield at times despite being left-footed, which is a relative rarity.
It would see Barcelona's approach change somewhat from how Neymar is involved, but when you replace the best, on occasion an entire mould break is required.
Neymar No. 3: Yannick Carrasco
On the other hand, if the intention is to retain the cutting in, constant dribbling and shot repetition that Neymar generates for the team, and Coutinho is unattainable, looking within La Liga is a good starting point.
Atletico Madrid's Yannick Carrasco continues to impress and improve, finding more consistency and end product this term than last, and in another couple of seasons—assuming Neymar remains at least that long—it's a reasonable assertion he'll have gone up another level.
Carrasco is a wide midfielder rather than a wide forward and so tracks back more by nature, but liberate him from Diego Simeone's regimented enforcement of defensive work and his productivity could easily go up another notch or two.
Suarez No. 1: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
How do you replace the world's best No. 9? Well, going in for the next-best would probably be the starting point.
Opinion may be split whether Luis Suarez's heir is Robert Lewandowski, Sergio Aguero or someone else of that ilk, but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is up there with the finest. He's also a year younger than either of the aforementioned duo and three years Suarez's junior.
The Borussia Dortmund goal machine is more direct, more reliant on pace and also more clinical than Suarez in the role, and he'd be more likely to serve as the reference point for the attack, whereas Suarez roams and drifts into the channels. But a striker more likely to be on the defenders' shoulders makes more room for other players to operate in behind him.
Suarez No. 2: Andrea Belotti
Top-tier No. 9s are in somewhat short supply around Europe at present, with many teams opting for more mobile, creative former wingers or attacking midfielders as their strikers.
Technically, Andrea Belotti is in that mould, too, having been a wide option in his formative years, but he now excels for Torino as their main striker, netting 14 in Serie A this season. Of strikers the same age or younger than Belotti at 23, only Mauro Icardi has managed more in Europe's top five leagues.
A hardworking forward who is quick to shoot at any given opportunity, Belotti has the chance to become one of the most regular goal-getters around, and his next move from Torino will be all-important. Once at a big club, his minutes might go down if he doesn't shine, but his price tag will certainly go up.
Suarez No. 3: Alexis Sanchez
We've been here before, right?
Alexis Sanchez played well over 100 games for Barcelona between 2011 and 2014, spanning three full seasons, but there was often a hint of his being second-choice in any particular role, flitting between both flanks of the attack.
Three years on, and it's clear his best role has been as a forward, where he has operated for Chile and also this season for Arsenal. His powerful running, relentless chasing of the defence and single-minded intent to find the goal has yielded great dividends.
In style and on-pitch manner he's a like-for-like for Luis Suarez, as he's aggressive and determined from first whistle to last, but at age 28, it's perhaps almost last orders for a return to the Camp Nou.
Another year from now might signal the end of the club considering him worthwhile to contribute for a few seasons...and it just so happens his contract at the Emirates expires next summer.
Messi No. 1: Paulo Dybala
Let's be clear from the outset: Lionel Messi cannot and will not be replaced.
Akin to filling the voids of Ferenc Puskas, Johan Cruyff or Diego Maradona when their careers came to an end, the gap Messi leaves behind will mean a sea change for the team both in approach play and expectation of end result.
As such, there's no like-for-like options to replace him.
The first consideration is simply to get the best offensive player who offers a combination of goal creation and scoring, and that is more than likely to be Paulo Dybala by the time Messi moves on or retires.
The Juventus man will cost the earth but is worth it. Set pieces, extravagant goals, creativity to unlock defences and quick feet in crowded defensive thirds—he's as good an alternative as Barcelona are likely to find.
Messi No. 2: Ousmane Dembele
In terms of wide forwards and the top young attacking talents around, Ousmane Dembele is certainly in the upper reaches.
Comfortable using both feet to dribble or pass, Dembele cuts in regularly from the channels to run directly at the defence and find through passes or shooting opportunities, though at just 19 years of age, it's natural that many of his decisions at present end in frustrating dead ends.
The talent is undeniable, even so, and perhaps his youth makes him more likely to be an option—assuming Messi sticks around a few more years yet, with Dembele maturing in the meantime.
He's very different in approach and more direct and pace, but he could certainly meet Barcelona's standards.
Messi No. 3: Antoine Griezmann
The alternative is someone who can play across all three forward spots, guarantees goals and knows La Liga inside out: Antoine Griezmann.
He won't come cheap at all, and poaching a rival domestic club for their best talent is never an easy operation to conclude, but Atletico Madrid and Barca have done business on more than one occasion with success.
Fast on the counter, skilful against defenders, hardworking defensively, capable of shooting from any range and the third-best player in world football in 2016...he'd still be a downgrade from Messi in every respect.
Griezmann would be one of the most expensive players to acquire, and everyone on this list has a huge market value—so it's fair to say for the sake of Barcelona and their fans, the eventual and inevitable exits of Messi, Suarez and Neymar had best be staggered over a significant period of time.