Liverpool case clear for 'number 3' of last decade behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo

Lionel Messi of Paris Saint-Germain walks past Cristiano Ronaldo of Riyadh XI after scoring the side's first goal during the Winter Tour 2023 friendly between Paris Saint-Germain and Riyadh XI at King Fahd International Stadium on January 19, 2023 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo defined a generation, but a one-time Liverpool star may well have been the best of the rest. -Credit:Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images

Is anything in football quite as tired as the Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate? By now, the camps are long-since entrenched — everybody has a favorite, and it’s not going to change.

We’re finally entering a brave new world where new stars are set to emerge. Right now, nobody has quite stepped up to stake their claim to the same god-like status; Liverpool’s biggest contenders are perhaps stuck between two generations, with Virgil van Dijk once pipped by Messi to the Ballon d’Or by just seven votes, and Mohamed Salah coming away empty-handed from a string of consecutive nominations.

Of course, there’s Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland, probably the closest to an ‘equivalent’ debate so far. Jude Bellingham is entering the conversation too. But with Messi in Miami and Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia, it’s only in the last year or two that their long shadows have stopped dimming the light of such emerging stars.

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Yet while it’s exciting to look forward, it’s also interesting to look back. Not to relitigate the Messi vs Ronaldo debate (I’m team Messi, for whatever it’s worth), but to ask a far more intriguing question: if those two are the undisputed number one and two of the last 10 years, who is number three?

That very question was posted to the Reddit football forum, and the responses have been fascinating. Certainly, there is no runaway contender, with the likes of Manuel Neuer, Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Ramos all being nominated.

For one thing, the chosen timeframe is enough to make plenty of fans feel old. A certain vintage of Liverpool fan would jump to put Steven Gerrard in the debate, before realizing that only his final two seasons at Anfield fall within the reference period.

That’s also testimony to the longevity of Messi and Ronaldo, who were denying ‘best in the world’ shouts to the likes of Gerrard long before they were thwarting Van Dijk. In the 2008 Ballon d’Or, it was Fernando Torres, another Liverpool star, who had to settle for the bronze medal behind the two era-defining greats.

But honing in on the last decade, there is one Liverpool representative who surely deserves the crown as ‘best of the rest’. That’s Luis Suárez.

Only one season at Liverpool sneaks into the 10-year window, but it happens to be perhaps the greatest individual Premier League campaign of all time. It still does not get the recognition it deserves.

Suárez dragged a Liverpool side with no right to be competing for the title to the brink of immortality. He spearheaded the charge with an impressive 31 goals in 33 games, none of which came from the penalty spot. In the same season, Gerrard converted 10 efforts from 12 yards — had the Uruguayan been given those duties, he would have set a tally even Haaland would not yet have come close to touching.

All the while, Suárez was busy notching up 17 assists. When Liverpool fell just short that year, none of the blame lay at his door, and there could be no complaints when he made the move to Barcelona.

Somehow, implausibly, he found another level of performance in Catalonia. Striking up an immediate connection with Messi, as well as Neymar (another with a few mentions for that coveted ‘number three’ status), his second-season tally of 40 league goals and 18 assists actually beat Ronaldo on both counts.

That was certainly his real standout season in terms of the numbers, but he would go on to be a key contributor for many years. For players born in the post-War era, only Messi and Ronaldo boast better minutes-per-goal ratios in La Liga, and Suárez is the division’s 16th-top scorer overall despite only amassing a relatively modest 258 games.

Of course, some of those games came for Atlético Madrid. Barcelona thought that Suárez had aged beyond his usefulness, sold him to a team it did not consider title rivals, and promptly watched him spur Diego Simeone’s side to La Liga glory.

That’s pretty special, and it’s been a repeating pattern. Suárez delivered the title again upon his subsequent return to boyhood club Nacional — a chapter many players would choose to make their fairytale ending, but he was not finished there.

It was something of a Liverpool repeat at his next club Grêmio, where his best efforts were only enough for second. But Suárez finished the campaign as top goal-scorer in the Brazilian championship and was voted the best player, as well as contributing to silverware in more minor competitions.

In the latest chapter, perhaps even more than Messi, it looks like Suárez will be a truly transformative presence at Inter Miami at the ripe old age of 37. Certainly, the combination of the two of them has been a delightful throwback to the Barcelona days, and it is bringing the same old success.

Hopefully Liverpool will field plenty of candidates in future debates about the world’s very best. But in hindsight, for a time at the start of the last decade, it might have had the number three player of a generation behind Messi and Ronaldo.