After four years of a constant debate surrounding the identity of the best player in the world, it doesn’t seem like a question anymore. Cristiano Ronaldo is at a stage of his career where there is no more improvement – only trying to hold on to the top level for as long as possible. Lionel Messi? He’s won, hands down, the most heated debate in the sport in recent years, even even if his club isn’t as invincible as it used to be.
Some might suggest that Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo doing so well against Barcelona last season (three wins, three draws, no losses in all competitions) suggest that it’s not that obvious, but this isn’t a tennis match. Real Madrid are simply a team that last season had the Barcelona plan figured out, but it didn’t help them at the end of the season, as they finished without a single title, and it didn’t help Ronaldo in the individual races he cares about so much, including the Pichichi, which once again wasn’t even close.
The sport of football shouldn’t be about numbers, but Ronaldo and especially Messi seem to be breaking every possible statistical barrier that it’s impossible not to compare them with that measuring stick. The teammates are different, the styles are different, yet they are the only two players in the world who seem like a safe bet to score at least a goal each match, as their averages from the last four seasons.
Messi finished with 46 goals in 32 matches, getting a rest due to an injury at the end of the season, and 60 goals in all competitions, playing 50 matches. Cristiano Ronaldo? “Only” one goal per match in the league (34 of 34) and in all competitions with 55 of 55. Hardly something to complain about, but when season after season, both Barcelona and Lionel Messi eclipse whatever it is that Ronaldo and Real Madrid achieve, it’s easier making that conclusion.
It’s a problem when comparing the two on a different level than the one the numbers tell us. Ronaldo is the easiest player to explain why he’s so great. No one is faster or stronger. An incredible shot from long range with both feet, combined with athleticism of the highest level. Ronaldo was built to be a star in this sport, and possibly in a few others if anyone in Portugal cared about anything else.
Messi? There’s a reason why people call him genius and a magician with the ball. Short, without much of a vertical leap or any impressive muscles to hint at the fact that no one is more unstoppable. The ball is glued to the outside of his feet, and his positioning, masked by something of an effortless walk around the pitch, seems to impeccable most of the time, as is his timing.
Ronaldo has to work harder for his goals, but that’s the way he is. He’s rarely a finisher of brilliant team plays. He loves getting the ball on the left wing and start pushing to the middle. There have been additions to his game over the last couple of seasons, but overall, you see the same pattern again and again. Hard to stop because of who he is, but you can guess where the threat is coming from.
Barcelona have their own predictability problems, but that’s because of the design, which seems to tell us that no matter how many passes between any players on a Barcelona attack happen, Lionel Messi is going to be the one who finishes the play. Neymar was signed to fix that problem, and become a star on European soil so he can make the team even bigger than it really is.
Ronaldo, you might not have noticed, is turning 29 during this season. It’s not the beginning of the end, but last season showed us that there might be anywhere higher to climb for him. It might be the same for Messi, but he’s a slightly higher level than Ronaldo, and has probably been there ever since Ronaldo arrived at Madrid, making it easier to compare between the two. As amazing as Cristiano Ronaldo is even on a decent day, it just isn’t as good as Lionel Messi can be.