PARIS — Paris Saint-Germain has even more reason to fear Barcelona star Lionel Messi when the teams meet in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Messi finds himself in an unusual position of being out-scored by a Barcelona teammate. But although he is getting fewer goals than Neymar, Messi's overall game continues to blossom and the 27-year-old is arguably even more dangerous than during his rampantly prolific heyday, when he netted 186 Barca goals from 2010-2013.
Barcelona has managed 18 goals in 7 games so far this season, with Messi involved in 14 of them as the chief supplier for Neymar. The Brazil striker grabbed his first Barca hat trick in Saturday's 6-0 rout of Malaga, with Messi scoring twice to reach 401 goals for club and country and also setting up two.
The previous week, he created two goals and scored one in a 5-0 thrashing of Levante.
"He's an impressive player on every level because he can score and he can pass," said Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, who scored 73 goals in 207 games for Barca from 1996-2004.
"He's also a very determined player, and I think he's also the No. 1 in terms of defending and dropping back," Enrique said Monday. "Even though people talk much less about that part of his game, he's also very good at it."
With Neymar around, the burden of scoring has been eased on Messi, however, and this allows his game to develop in other ways.
With key midfielder Xavi Hernandez advancing in years, Messi is becoming more of a creator than before for Barca and his superb first-time passes — allied to Neymar's slick and sharp movement — give Barca an attacking edge most teams can only dream about.
"Messi's a bit different this season because he's scoring less but is more influential in the game," said Barcelona defender Jeremy Mathieu, who faced Messi for five years when playing for Valencia before joining Barca. "Everyone knows about his qualities and he's very important for us. He can create something out of nothing and win the match."
Neymar's mobility and pace also make him an easier player for Messi to pick out than either Spain forward Pedro Rodriguez, who likes to dart in more with blind runs from the wing, or former Barca striker David Villa, who was not at his best in three seasons with the Catalan club.
"They're combining well together," Enrique said of the Messi-Neymar tandem. "But it's important that the whole team combines well, not just two players."
Paris Saint-Germain coach Laurent Blanc's admiration for Messi is clear, even though he has to find a way to stop him in the Group F encounter.
"Everyone knows Messi. Why? Because he takes the ball and dribbles past four players, but he's also able to bring others into play. He's meant to be a center-forward but he's never there most of the time," Blanc said. "He drifts out of position so he can get on the ball as much as possible and hurt you even more. We're going to have to close down the space around him, because as soon as he gets the ball and accelerates he's so dangerous."
"Ibra's a very important player for them and makes a difference in practically every game," Mathieu said. "I still follow Ligue 1 and it's obvious that when he's not there it's a bit more difficult for them."