LONDON: Not so long ago, the podium in Spanish football had one real variable, and the trick for pre-season soothsayers was to interpret something no more complicated than a grid of noughts and crosses. Champions? Real Madrid or Barcelona, a pattern interrupted just once in the last 11 years. Top scorer? The boaster at Bernabeu, or the little fellow at Camp Nou. Ballon d'Or? Same answer. Ronaldo or Messi.
At its most intense, the rivalry of the 21st century's two outstanding footballers has been about throwing down fresh gauntlets from different corners of Iberia, sometimes on the same evening. A Ronaldo hat-trick in the capital at cocktail hour against some poor visitor from Andalucia gets answered, after dinner, by three, maybe four goals in a night in Catalonia for Messi.
The last time neither player ended up as La Liga's Pichichi, scorer of the greatest number of goals in a league campaign was in 2009, before Ronaldo reached Spain. Only once in the past five years has the winner of that award scored fewer than 40 times in a 38?match season.
Over the past two months, however, a new form of turn-taking has become fashionable. Messi missed most of that period with a ligament problem, while Ronaldo, though still prolific, has had an unusually erratic run in that his goals have been unevenly concentrated, not spread smoothly weekend after weekend.
The duel at the summit belongs to others, and they doff their caps to one another with exaggerated politeness. When Barcelona's Neymar does not score a brace, or perhaps three goals, Barcelona's Luis Suarez will. Week in, week out. They have 26 goals between them already towards Barcelona's dominant position in the table, 13 games into the season.
Neymar, with 14, leads the Pichichi rankings and does so at a rate Messi and Ronaldo have established as par in their unique stratosphere: more than a goal per game. He might have had more. He let Suarez take a penalty against Villarreal last month. Several times on Saturday, when Real Sociedad put themselves at the mercy of the most formidable forward line in Europe, Neymar might easily have scored the goal that would have secured his hat-trick. He chose to pass instead, when to shoot would have been reasonable.
Deference has become Neymar's trademark quality as much as his deadliness as a finisher. He spent much of the last quarter of the 4-0 victory against Real Sociedad making the penetrating runs that have become instinctive while in the corner of his eye seeing how best he might set up Messi to score a goal on the Argentine's first full game in La Liga since his September injury. Come the 89th minute, following a flourishing move with Neymar its centrepiece, the plan worked. A Neymar cross, a Messi tap-in.
The Barcelona coach Luis Enrique watched on like a parent pleased to see his kids sharing out their time equitably on the garden trampoline. "With the result settled, they looked for a way that everyone could score," he said of his front three, Neymar, Suarez and Messi. "They have such an understanding they feel the party's not over until all three of them have scored."
There is a fine line between this sort of complicity and showboating. Barcelona on their current form do swagger, and they can exasperate their rivals, as Neymar was reminded last weekend during the humiliation of Ronaldo's Madrid at the Bernabeu. The Madrid substitute, Isco, irate at seeing the Brazilian slip past him and his colleagues again and again, swung a boot at him, and was instantly sent off.
Neymar is an irritant. Since he arrived in Spain in 2013, as a 21-year-old and Barcelona's most expensive recruit, he has made some enemies. Last season, the players of Rayo Vallecano complained he was taunting them, adding one trick too many to his one?on-one contests, making his celebration dances too frivolous.
Several Atletico Madrid footballers have felt the same, and told him so. But those moments of bumptiousness have become fewer, rarer. In the absence of the injured Messi, he has led by example.
The maturing of the player is marked out in the different ways he scores. Against Real, there was the accomplished centre-forward now being allied to Neymar's excellence as a dribbler and finisher from wide positions; both his goals came from well-timed runs to meet low crosses.
The maturing of the man, meanwhile, is signposted by greater discretion. Neymar is still his own most loyal paparazzo, lively on social media, star of what his compatriots call 'Neymarketing', the cultivating of his hip image for sponsors and advertisers. But, apart from going to a party in Brazil during the last international break and joining some Barca colleagues in Halloween garb as they made their way out of Getafe's stadium, there has been little for anybody lately to cite as evidence of dilettantism.
Then there is the very thick skin. In the 21/2 years since Neymar joined Barcelona, revelations about the deal that brought him from Santos have led a Barcelona president to resign, and to tax investigations in two countries. All this appears to breeze past him. As for his pricetag, it hangs loose on his shoulders. The more that filters out about the complex transfer, the more it is clear Barcelona's initial declaration that they invested euros 57?million in his signature was inaccurate, and that the value they placed on him was probably closer to double that. Right now, they would regard euros 120?million as a snip.