BARCELONA Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were being touted as the best strike force in soccer history a month ago as they spearheaded Barcelona's record unbeaten run but the tiring trio are now taking the blame as the club's season unravels.
The Madrid clubs are suddenly snapping at Barca's heels in the title race, with Atletico having also knocked them out of the Champions League to end the Catalans' hopes of a second successive treble.
Barca's 'MSN' South American strikeforce, who have scored 110 of the team's 147 goals this season in all competitions, have suddenly gone off the boil and the most common reason cited by Spanish media for their loss of form is fatigue.
La Liga leaders Barca have played 56 games so far this season, seven more than Atletico and 12 more than Real Madrid, due to their participation in the Club World Cup, European Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup and their run to the King's Cup final.
Messi and Neymar have each played 43 games and Suarez 47.
Luis Enrique has been reluctant to rest his jaded forwards and, remarkably, made no substitutions in Sunday's 2-1 home defeat by Valencia, suggesting he has little faith in the members of his squad beyond the regular starting 11.
The under-pressure coach has denied that Barca's woes are due to fatigue and, after the latest setback, berated a reporter who asked him about the players' physical decline.
But it is clear that Barcelona, and especially the forwards, are not as sharp as two months ago when they destroyed Valencia 7-0 in a King's Cup semi-final game and thrashed Celta Vigo 6-1 as part of a run of 39 games undefeated in all competitions.
Sunday's loss was Barca's third straight reverse in the league for the first time since 2003, leaving them level on points with Atletico, who they led by nine at the start of April, and a point ahead of Real.
Eliminated from the Champions League after last week’s 2-0 second-leg loss at Atletico, Barcelona’s campaign has unravelled since the players returned from the international break.
The 'MSN' trident went to South America for World Cup qualifiers in late March and have not looked the same since.
Messi got his 500th career goal on Sunday but that was his only goal in his last six club games, while Neymar has not found the net in his last five.
The Brazilian has come in for most criticism from the Spanish media since Barca’s slump began, with Sport newspaper claiming he has 'disappeared' since January’s FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony where he came third behind Messi and Ronaldo.
It is not just the trio's goals that have dried up either. Their chemistry before the rot set in was evident, with Luis Enrique joking in February that all he had to do was say ‘Abracadabra’ to get them to work their magic.
In the Champions League defeat at Atletico, the three players failed to gel, playing just 12 passes to each other with Messi completing one to Neymar and none to Suarez. Enrique needs to quickly come up with a new spell to save the season.
(Editing by Ken Ferris/Mitch Phillips)
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