The Champions League returns this week after its winter hiatus. Those purists who grumble about dead rubbers and interminable group phases will be relieved to learn we’ve reached the knockout phase.
The last 16 has pitted two of Europe’s most devastating attacking units against one another.
Paris Saint Germain, bankrolled by a Qatari consortium, have been flinging cash at players to attract them to the French capital. £200 million was spent in bringing Neymar to the club and he has linked up with Edison Cavani and teenager Kylian Mbappe to form one of the continent’s most potent attacks.
Facing them this week is another fabled attacking trio, the so-called BBC, namely, Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo (the anagram is dependent on one Christian name but anyhow…)
In anticipation of this tasty clash, we look back on five of the greatest attacking trios in the history of the game.
Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo
During the summer of ’02, the three ‘R’s’ ceased to denote reading, writing and ‘rithmetic and came to refer to the aforementioned Brazilians.
It’s hard to believe in light of what occurred but the lead-in to the 2002 World Cup was accompanied by the now standard pre-tournament hand-wringing about how Brazil are no longer what they used to be.
That may be true today but it was badly off the mark in 2002.
The pessimism was based primarily around the personage of Luiz Felipe Scolari, their Gene Hackman lookalike of a manager.
The purists warned us that Scolari was intent on desecrating the image of Brazilian football and had his team kicking lumps out of all comers.
The fact that they made alarmingly heavy weather of qualification was also cited as evidence against them.
This was all forgotten once the tournament started as, one by one, the aristocrats of European football made a hames of things.
Brazil, by contrast, sauntered their way through the group phase and their leading men Rivaldo and Ronaldo looked like they were having an obscene amount of fun running roughshod over all opposition.
Ronaldo claimed the golden boot and scored in every game bar the quarter-final win against England.
Rivaldo scored in every match save for the semi-final and final, though the standout image from his tournament was his villainous face-clutching display after a frustrated Turk belted a ball in the direction of his knee in the second group game.
Meanwhile the relatively new-ish Ronaldinho nabbed goals against China and a rather memorable one against England.
Romario, Laudrup, Stoichkov
This eye-poppingly starry trio wowed the crowds at the Nou Camp for just one season and were prevented from making sweet music on the biggest stage by UEFA’s then insistence on restricting the number of foreign players eligible to compete in the Champions League.
UEFA specified that clubs could only field three players from outside their country of origin in European competition and Johan Cruyff remained loyal to sweeper Ronald Koeman, meaning that Michael Laudrup had to sit in the stands for the 1994 Champions League final. The Dane might not have made much difference in the end as they were battered 4-0 by AC Milan.
That rule, incidentally, also badly hamstrung Fergie’s Manchester United in their early years in the Champions League. Ferguson was shocked and surprised to learn that Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and, yes, Republic of Ireland players were treated as foreign, which was odd for a supposed Michael Collins buff.
In terms of concrete achievements, Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona team had already scaled their greatest heights before the surly Romario joined their ranks from Eindhoven in the summer of 1993.
Living the shadow of the giants from the Spanish capital for the guts of three decades, the Catalans recruited Cruyff and he soon delivered a glorious period of success, winning four La Liga titles in a row between 1991 and 1994. Into that mix, we can also throw their first ever European Cup title in 1992.
Stoichkov and Laudrup were there for the whole duration with Romario added to that already potent brew ahead of the 1993-94 season.
The side hit more dizzying heights in that season with Romario finishing as the League’s top scorer with 30 goals from 33 appearances.
Stoichkov, always less of a pure marksman, wasn’t exactly slack in the same department, notching up 16 goals over the season. The pair became soul brothers off the pitch – chronicled in Four Four Two here – and formed a great partnership on the pitch.
Laudrup, lying deeper, scored five League goals in 31 appearances. The high-water mark of the season was the 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid in January ’94.
Romario would achieve the peak of his fame when winning the World Cup with Brazil that summer but the trio was already being broken up.
Laudrup departed for Real Madrid in the summer of 1994 and helped them regain the La Liga title in his only season there. The other two fell out of love with each other and both departed the Nou Camp soon after.
Best, Charlton, Law
The ‘United Trinity’, as they are known, are honoured by a statue outside Old Trafford. Best, Charlton and Law were the irresistible three-headed attacking beast that carried Manchester United to the top of English and European football in the 1960s.
All three won the ‘Ballon d’Or’ in the 1960s, then awarded by the magazine France Football to the best European player that year. Law won it in ’64, Chartlon in ’66 and Best in ’68.
The trio complemented each other beautifully. Law was a traditional goal-poacher style striker, Best was the dazzling talent who often drifted out wide, while Charlton was the devastating attacking midfielder with a fearsome shot.
Of the three, Best had by far the greatest impact on popular culture, being dubbed the fifth Beatle and later establishing himself as the self-destructive genius against whom all subsequent self-destructive geniuses have been judged.
In terms of persona, Charlton was positioned as Best’s antithesis. A straight-laced, Tory-voting (not that Best was a socialist), comb-over owning, intensely private man. His determined unfashionability has possibly resulted in him being underrated by posterity.
John Giles, for one, was adamant that Bobby was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of them all.
They also had contrasting experiences in international football.
Bestie unfortunately never played in a World Cup, Bobby Charlton won a World Cup in ’66, while Denis Law bestowed the title of world champion upon himself and his Scottish teammates after they beat England at Wembley in 1967, providing the initial spark of inspiration for the establishment of the unofficial world championship many years later.
Messi, Neymar, Suarez
It would be insulting to the intelligence to offer too much of a lowdown on these guys. The trio was formed when Luis Suarez – the final piece of this particular jigsaw – arrived at the Nou Camp from Liverpool in the summer of 2014.
Barcelona promptly returned to the summit of the European game and their attacking trio posted some truly absurd goalscoring stats.
Between them, they mustered 122 goals across all competitions. Suarez scored 25 goals over the course of the season, Neymar managed 39, while Lionel Messi only found the net on 58 occasions.
Barca claimed the Treble in that 2014-15 season, winning their most recent Champions League title with a 3-1 victory over Juventus in Berlin.
In 2015-16, they added a domestic double but had to watch their hated rivals win the first of two Champions League titles.
They were split up last summer after the Qatari’s got out their cheque-book and enticed Neymar away.
Jairzinho, Tostao, Pele
Another celebrated Brazilian trio. Those who reached maturity in the 1970s will not hear of it that there was ever a better World Cup winning side that the Brazilian class of 1970s.
Brazil have since won World Cups in 1994 and 2002 but the old-time purists reject those sides as drab and stolidly functional (well, the former anyway) next to the heroes of 1970.
The attacking trio who conquered the world in Mexico consisted of Pele, of whom there’s been plenty written, Jairzinho, who scored in every single game of the competition, and Tostao, the medical doctor and creative heart of the team.
They never teamed up at club level but are distinguished from the modern class of Brazilian footballer in that each played the best part of their careers in Brazil.
Pele played for eighteen years for Santos, scoring over 600 goals, before playing a couple of exhibition seasons in North America. Tostao remains Cruzerio’s all-time leading goalscorer while Jairzinho turned out for over 15 seasons for Botafogo.