23 April, 2008

Messi vs. Ronaldo

Last season a mouth-watering prospect lined itself up for football fans around the world; the chance to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka’ lined against one another in a Champions League semi-final. The pre-game buzz was that Ronaldo had surpassed the mercurial Brazilian as the best player in the world, and the stage was set for him to finally prove that he could do it at truly the highest level and not just against, say, Charlton. However, over the two legs the Portuguese winger went missing, United lost, and a month later AC Milan celebrated their seventh European Cup.

Tonight though, another such contest in on the cards as our league’s leading goal-scorer faces off against La Liga’s most prestigious talent since Big Ronaldo slipped on the famous Barcelona shirt ten years ago. Lionel Messi is, well, almost impossible to give an epithet to. At just 20 years old he is the spirit of Maradona reincarnated; the most incredible balance and turn of pace, topped off with quite simply breath-taking footwork, styled in a way that only the very best South Americans can possess. It’s basically self defeating to choose a favourite, but if tonight and next Tuesday offer nothing else, we should finally be able to gauge just what kind of place in history both men are destined for.

It is rare for two players of such talent to have careers that coincide almost exactly. Going back through the annuals, the truly great players of all-time have stood out like beacons among their peers; think Zidane, Maradona, Cruyff, Di Stephano, Puskas, Pele. Even in more recent memory, it is often easy to choose a World Player of the Year, but even though he has been injured for much of 2008 to date, Lionel Messi will still surely finish in the top 2 in this season’s poll. On paper Ronaldo is impossible to ignore, but one wonders what might have been had Messi stayed fit…

Statistically, Cristiano Ronaldo is perfect. He’s tall, muscular, ridiculously fast, can head a ball like Alan Shearer, shoot off either foot harder than George Weah, and hit a free-kick better than literally anyone else in history. His goal-scoring record levels out as a goal every game across all competitions in 2008, he is the Champions League’s leading scorer this season, and together with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, forms the most fearsome forward triumverate since the Galacticos-era at Real Madrid. If Messi is Maradona channelled in the 21st century, then Ronaldo is George Best given a trendy hair-cut and a bronzing. It’s impressive to read of his work ethic too, consistently eager to keep moving upwards, and staying later than expected at training every day while a spin in his Ferrari and an impromptu orgy must be tempting.

But, scratch the surface and he isn’t fit to stand alongside the aforementioned all-time greats just yet. It is only recently that Ronaldo has been truly effective in Europe and in the Premier League’s major confrontations, but last month’s performances against Roma and Arsenal prove that he has perhaps one hand on greatness now. United’s crucial 3 games this week, twice against Barce and the title decider against Chelsea, will be the making of the man, not to mention this summer’s European Championships where he will be aiming to carry Portugal to their first major international title. His arrogance and showboating are part of the mystique, and as long as that swagger exists, tackles will continue to be rashly thrown at him to step around. The diving too seems to have dried up thankfully, and most compellingly, the sheer fact that England has all but forgotten about his histrionics at the 2006 World Cup shows that he’s pretty special. His hat-trick earlier this year against Newcastle sums up everything that’s great about him; pace, power and two sublime feet:

However, while Ronaldo is an in-your-face behemoth, the equivalent of a neon sledgehammer to use an analogy, Messi is the sharpest and most subtle blade. The Telegraph put the physical disparity nicely today: “Ronaldo is strong as a bull with shoulders like a scaffolder; Messi is a delicate flower who plays football on his tip toes.” But little Lio’s running and balance are as mesmerising as Ronaldo’s step-overs, seemingly super-human the manner in which he can manufacture space to beat a man. Due to growth hormone defect however, Messi is still waiting for his full muscular development, so there’s no way you’ll see him towering over Vidic and Ferdinand to rocket a header past van der Sar, but that just isn’t his game. In tight spaces, Messi’s control and footwork matches anyone in history; he can suck in two, three or even four players and somehow ease past them. In terms of passing and vision too, Messi surpasses Ronaldo, and such is the way Barcelona have dominated Spanish football over the last five years or so before Real’s true resurgence this year.

Ronaldo’s assists have dried up as his goal-scoring has increased, perhaps understandably, but Messi is a true team player, able to easily interchange with the likes of Henry, Eto’o and Iniesta. On paper, you still feel Barcelona have the attacking edge even if they haven’t even remotely played to their full potential this season, but it’s perhaps no coincidence that the slump has been aligned with Messi’s stay on the treatment table. Messi has replaced Ronaldinho as the Catalans’ talisman, a spine-tingling prodigy who is still unassuming and understated. As with Ronaldo though, the criticisms of true European and international success can be levelled, as Messi was just one for the future when Barce won the Champions League two years ago. In terms of attitude and personality, Messi has both the temperance and humility to accept rough treatment and decisions going against him better than Ronaldo, as well as appealing more to the neutral, but that’s a small part of the picture. To sum up Messi in a goal is easy; surely everyone has seen this by now, but put simply, this is the best goal of the last decade:

So, can we come to any conclusions? What is clear is that each have adapted their natural talents to their adopted leagues over the last two years; Messi is graceful, floating through defences and capable of the deftest touch, while Ronaldo has built himself into a blistering physical specimen, yet still maintained the lightning step-overs that attracted Ferguson to him in the first place. It’s perhaps a moot point, but could Messi play in the Premier League? Probably not; he simply couldn’t compete physically, for better or for wrose. Could Ronaldo play in La Liga? Undoubtedly yes; and I’m sure before his career ends he will see him either a Real or Barce shirt. Tonight then is the closest we will come to comparing the two on a level playing field, as Manchester United’s free-flowing attacking style owes more to the fluidity of great Spanish sides of the past than the stringance of the Arsenals and Liverpools of the past. Put simply, just sit back and enjoy.


analogtyler said...
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