On Lionel Messi's 33rd birthday, we've taken a look back through his career so far and picked out his best team-mates—with a twist.
This isn't just a list of the best 10 he's played with; it's a ranking of those he connected with on the pitch, those who formed formidable partnerships and great relationships once the white line was crossed.
David Villa, a player who enjoyed a wildly successful spell with Barcelona and combined with Messi brilliantly, just missed the top 10. That gives an indication of just how strong or entrenched the link must be to crack this list.
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10. Javier Mascherano
Games together: 413 (Barcelona, 2010-18, Argentina 2005-18)
Only three players in history have clocked up more appearances alongside Messi than Mascherano, who linked up with him for both club and country. From 2010-18, no matter where he was in the world or what shirt he had on, Messi would be right there with him.
That's a luxury many may have dreamed of, but only Mascherano has experienced.
That club plus country element is a key reason as to why he features on this list. Their interactions on the pitch at Barcelona were limited due to the fact Mascherano played more centre-back than holding midfield, but on the international stage they combined to form the two most important reference points on the pitch: the midfield general and the attacking star.
Argentina's inexplicable failure to win an international trophy during Messi's career reflects poorly on many (players and managers alike), but Mascherano held up his end of the bargain, protecting a defence that has never felt strong and stabilising the middle so Messi's task at the other end wasn't insurmountable.
9. Jordi Alba
Games together: 290 (Barcelona, 2012-)
It's perhaps indicative of the team's current performance that the majority of this list is made up of ex-players, with Alba just one of two current colleagues featuring.
A left-back probably isn't where your mind immediately goes when considering the best connections Messi's had on the pitch, but a good number of Barcelona's most dangerous attacking moves involve these two nowadays—and what's interesting is it's often the exact same move or pattern.
Almost every single one of Alba's assists to Messi have been low balls into the box, the former understanding and anticipating the latter's movement and timing as well as any ever have.
From 2012-16, we'd often see Alba overlap the left-winger, be fed the ball and then find Messi. From 2017 their connection has gotten even stronger, with Messi often finding Alba out wide then seeing the ball returned for a shot.
They're basically one-twos between themselves across an entire half of a pitch, against a full team.
It remains arguably Barca's most effective route to goal in 2020—outside of Messi taking matters solely into his own hands.
Games together: 80 (Barcelona, 2004-08)
More than 30 players have played more games with Messi than Ronaldinho did, whose 80 appearances alongside the Argentinian is the lowest on this list. But few can claim to have had the effect Ronaldinho did on Messi's growth and development.
The Argentinian's first senior goal was set up by Ronaldinho, who celebrated by hoisting the youngster on to his back and parading around. It was the beginning of a beautiful, symbiotic relationship on the pitch.
Messi, the book of Spanish football expert Guillem Balague, details how Ronaldinho welcomed the Argentina international into the Brazilian circle at Barca, taking on a kind of mentoring role off the pitch, while helping unlock the talent on it. Whatever he did worked a treat, as the world's best player soon blossomed, needing just a few years to reach the very top.
Ronaldinho was gone by 2008, shifted on by then-manager Pep Guardiola as he looked to remodel the team. What he left, in Messi, has served them well in his wake.
Games together: 399 (Barcelona, 2004-15)
From 2008-2014, Barca's strongest midfield trio saw Xavi line up on the right, Andres Iniesta on the left and Sergio Busquets just behind them. They combined to dazzling effect, bringing to life the elements of "tiki-taka" so often associated with Guardiola's Barcelona and Spain's world-conquering side.
Xavi's link to Messi was naturally pretty strong, given the two would play on the same side of the pitch for seasons at a time and constantly interchange passes. When Dani Alves overlapped and Messi ducked inside, it was often Xavi who would find the No. 10 with a pass into a tight spot.
These were no regular passes; they'd be regarded by many as impossible, fired into incredibly tight areas, but Xavi's accuracy, technique and weight of pass allowed him to do it.
When Barca tried to keep the ball, effectively starving opponents of possession to lock them out of games, Xavi would orchestrate, and Messi would be a key a outlet for a one-two.
Games together: 161 (Barcelona, 2013-17)
It's not a given that fellow illustrious technicians and mercurial dribblers mesh with Messi. We've seen plenty of examples over the years of top-tier players struggling to co-exist with him (Philippe Coutinho is a headline example, Antoine Griezmann a concern to keep an eye on), so there will have been a few nerves surrounding Neymar's integration into the team.
But the pair found their groove pretty quickly, helping each other by sharing the load up front and chipping in when the other didn't. When both were firing, teams were best off waving the white flag.
Their connection was at its best in the run to the 2015 Champions League win, with Messi playing right-wing and Neymar left. Barca built play up the right and found Messi, who would then play a pinpoint switch pass to Neymar on the other flank, most likely in a one-on-one with his marker.
Neymar blitzed teams that year, netting 39 goals and bagging 10 assists. Fittingly, a goal of this exact making occurred in the Champions League final against Juventus, cementing the connection in legend.
Games together: 270 (Barcelona, 2008-15)
Due to the overwhelming star quality across Barcelona's squads through the years, Pedro was never regarded as a key man. But he does rank among the cleverest forwards Messi has ever played alongside, profiting greatly off the amount of space the No. 10 created as a byproduct of being so heavily attended to.
Pedro essentially resembled the Spanish version of Thomas Muller at Barca. A "raumdeuter," or "space investigator," he reacted and moved according to the space that opened as Messi weaved his magic.
He converted these little movements and moments into just shy of 100 goals for Barca in all competitions. He also marked himself out as a man for the big stage, netting the opener in the 2011 Champions League final by pulling to the right as defenders zeroed in on Messi before receiving the Argentinian's clever pass and slotting home.
A remarkable opportunist and a cool two-footed finisher, Pedro did more for Barca than a legion of players with twice the talent because he understood how to use Messi's brilliance for his (and his team's) benefit.
4. Sergio Busquets
Games together: 515 (Barcelona, 2008-)
Busquets' sheer number of games played with Messi—a whopping 515—cements an automatic spot in this list, but it's the importance of their connection that necessitates such a high ranking.
There's a natural separation between Busquets and Messi on the pitch, a product of their divide in responsibilities. Despite the distance between them, it's long been the defensive midfielder's job to find the Argentinian as early and often as possible—and he's done so for more than a decade.
The best Barca sides Busquets and Messi have been part of—Pep's 2009 and 2011 variants—were famous for their tiki-taka approach and leaned heavily on Xavi and Iniesta, but Busquets' ability to thread passes through multiple lines, finding Messi from deeper positions, led to countless attacks and goals.
He utilises incredible disguise on his passes and movements, continually sending opposing defenders (and viewers' eyes) the wrong way, creating a lane to find Messi. And from there, Messi turns and wreaks havoc.
Even after all this time, more than a decade, that passing lane is continually open and often used. No one can stop it, and it remains an important tenet in the team's play.
3. Andres Iniesta
Games together: 489 (Barcelona, 2004-18)
Messi and Iniesta isn't the sort of iconic duo that typically springs to mind when you think about Barcelona's great partnerships of the past.
The latter's name is far more closely associated with Xavi, while Messi's goes with a litany of forwards before his midfield colleagues, but their almost unspoken-of connection on the pitch helped drive Barca to success.
They had a telepathic understanding that they maintained throughout various changes in position for both of them. Whether Messi was up top or on the right, whether Iniesta was in the centre or off the left, they found each other, played off each other and constructed for one another.
Of Barca's usual midfield three, Iniesta was the one who would break into the box more and push ahead of the ball. When doing so he'd enter Messi's territory, and the pair's link-up and interchanges were slick. One-touch passes, one-twos and through balls turned into goals.
It was automatic, beautiful and unstoppable.
2. Luis Suarez
Games together: 248 (Barcelona, 2014-)
We've detailed an illustrious list of forwards who have had a special bond with Messi on the pitch, but none have enjoyed themselves quite as much as Luis Suarez.
Things didn't actually start that smoothly; like with David Villa, there was a question over how the pair should be deployed together, with Suarez initially on the right-wing and Messi playing through the centre.
With everyone in agreement that a switch would work, Suarez took up the No. 9 position and never looked back. Operating in more natural roles, the two have combined for continual fireworks, scoring and assisting each other liberally.
In 2018, Suarez overtook Dani Alves' record of league assists to Messi, surpassing the figure of 26 against Valencia. That came after Messi (and Neymar) spent practically the entire 2015-16 campaign setting Suarez up for goals in order to win the Pichichi Trophy ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo. He scooped it, netting 40 in total.
Suarez's ability in tight spots, willingness to string slick moves together and dogged work rate have helped Messi in a variety of ways, and few have brought a smile to his face more often.
1. Dani Alves
Games together: 349 (Barcelona, 2008-2016)
Messi's connection with Alba is prominent, but he's on the opposite flank, so interactions are naturally limited to specific passages or moves that link the two.
His connection with Alves was different. Occupying the same side, or drifting wide towards him when playing centrally, the two combined countless times over a glorious eight-year period.
Alves was nominally Barcelona's right-back, but such was their dominance of territory and possession, he basically played as Barca's entire right side. He'd combine with Messi to build play up the right then hold the width as the No. 10 ducked inside, teasing balls and crosses in; one-twos in tight spaces were very common, as were Alves-to-Messi assists—there were 26 in La Liga alone.
There was another important element to their relationship too: Alves' incredible stamina. He'd often cover Messi's defensive responsibilities, burning up and down the flank all game, allowing the Argentinian to flit between sprinting and walking, saving up his juice for genius moments.
Barcelona haven't come close to the heights of 2009, 2011 and 2015 since that latter date, and there are myriad reasons for that, but Alves' slight decline and departure is among the key factors. Messi misses him, so Barca miss him.
All statistics via Transfermarkt.co.uk.