The never ending fascination with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo being one or two levels about the rest of European football isn’t going to stop any time soon, not when the two Barcelona & Real Madrid stars continue to score at the pace they are now, but it doesn’t mean they mean the difference between success and failure for the two sides.
Yes, both of them can have those matches in which nothing really happens except for their scoring. Barcelona enjoyed Lionel Messi in supreme form in their 4-0 win over AC Milan, starting with a blitz on the first minute, something similar to how Spain stunned Italy in the Euro final. After Messi was done, the rest of the team could finish the job.
And we’ve seen Ronaldo take Real Madrid on his back in matches when nothing was really happening. And yet, good ability doesn’t come from either of them. It’s hard to say they depend on someone specific being good or not so they can be prolific, because the two are the best in the world when it comes to creating something out of nothing. But Real Madrid and Barcelona aren’t at their best when Ronaldo & Messi are on their own. They’re at their best when they don’t have them to be.
When Manchester United visited the Santiago Bernabeu in the first leg of the knockout stage, Alex Ferguson took out Ronaldo from the match during an entire second half with Phil Jones not letting the Portuguese out of his sight. The players Real Madrid needed to step up – Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria, couldn’t break through and create something beyond the very effective tactical deployment of the Red Devils.
In the second match, at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho didn’t do anything special tactically. Until Nani got sent off, United were on the right path to defend well and without too many problems. Cristiano Ronaldo scored, but he wasn’t the one who made the difference. It was Luka Modric and Gonzalo Higuain that made the difference, along with an excellent defensive effort.
Same goes for Barcelona, who look much better when Xavi and Andres Iniesta can have an uninterrupted day in the middle of the pitch. It begins with Sergio Busquets being impossible to pass in the middle of the pitch, giving the two maestros in the middle of the field the freedom to be less concentrated about racing back to the vulnerable defense instead of supporting Messi, and with their ball movement allowing him the freedom to become free.
Xabi Alonso is the same in the Real Madrid midfield. When he doesn’t have to worry himself about chasing other midfielders and playing like more of a stopper in the defensive midfield, it pushes the Real Madrid front line forward, creating heavy pressure. Few players in the world have his passing abilities, especially with long balls. Freeing him up for strictly offensive roles simply makes Real Madrid a better team, maybe the best in Europe, regardless of how good Ronaldo is.
Because Ronaldo and Messi are so good they don’t even do anything different from match to match. Messi has this lazy looking walk about 25 meters from goal for most of the match, waiting for the 1-2 pass to free him up or to put him in a dribbling situation where he can take on defenders. Ronaldo shoots 6-7 times at goal, at least, every match. The only thing that changes how good and easy it is for him to find himself available through team plays is how well the rest of the players do on a certain day.
Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are a different side to what Real Madrid and Barcelona present. Less of a superstarish phenomenon, simply amazing teams that operate like perfect machines, moving up and down the pitch as one unit, or close to that. They present a different approach to the star-focused the Clasico tandem offer to the world. But it doesn’t mean Barcelona and Real Madrid aren’t teams as well. They’re just hiding in the shadows of the two biggest names in the sport, sometimes making us forget just how good the players around them are.