Ronaldo flits like a butterfly, Messi still in a cocoon!

This World Cup may not end in an overall coup for Ronaldo as there are far too many heavy-duty adversaries, but he has already won his personal battle with Lionel Messi.

After opening his account against Spain with a penalty kick, Ronaldo, in the course of his celebration, rubbed his chin as team-mate Bruno Fernandes looked on. Onlookers believed that Ronaldo was signifying a goat, which, if taken as an acronym, GOAT, expands to the Greatest Of All Time!   -  AFP

Blessed are we to witness one of the most enduring sports rivalries of generations. The Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly has ruled world football from 2008 onwards when the Portuguese won his first Ballon D’Or (while playing for Manchester United). The two have dominated the global football discourse ever since and have left others miles behind to make the universal arena a playground for two.

Over the past 10 years, they have appropriated all individual honours and even their clubs — Barcelona and Real Madrid — have controlled the football narrative, winning seven out of 10 Champions League crowns, six Super Cups and Club World Cup and nine Spanish titles. While both clubs, considered European royalty, have enjoyed regular national and continental success, the degree of this dominance emphasises the roles played by the two modern greats. 

They have scored, created chances and won games on their own, while often making opponents look like mere schoolboys, always a second early or a second too late in their tackles. The amount of control exercised by Messi and Ronaldo on games they play is usually very evident. They are the fulcrums of their club sides despite the presence of many other footballing greats. While Ronaldo has modelled his game on speed, force and easy power, for Messi his greatest assets have been his awesome balance and fiendishly wicked trickery of the feet.

Read: Sunil Chhetri impressed with Ronaldo's show

It is only natural for the world to weigh in on this ultimate rivalry and camps are divided as arguments rage to decide who is the greatest. Pele, who bedazzled the world with his wizardry at the 1958 World Cup, acknowledges the immense superiority of the two over the rest and says: “It’s sad that you have only two players in the world to choose from. Earlier we had Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Pele, Zico. All over the world now there are only two players.”

The King of football has his favourite too and adds: “Ronaldo is a great goal scorer, but in terms of a complete player, there’s no doubt Messi is the best. Scoring is important, no doubt, but if you do not have anyone to prepare, then the ball is not enough. For my team I prefer Messi. He’s been the most stable in the last 10 years.”

However, the 2018 World Cup has thrown in a new angle to this debate. While Portugal with four strikes from their skipper Ronaldo has waltzed its way to the knockout stage, Messi’s Argentina has looked dishevelled, with the captain, too, showing signs of anxiety which has stolen the sheen from his game.

Believe it or not: Yes, a lacklustre Lionel Messi did indeed mess up a penalty against Iceland.   -  Getty Images

 

The Argentine has looked rather forlorn and has been rarely involved in the game. Since his emergence in 2006, varied national team managers have found it hard to create a system that enhances and channelises Messi’s brilliance. For Barcelona, where he has played a variety of roles (after playing on the wings, or centrally behind a striker or even a false No. 9 over the years, Messi has excelled as a conventional No. 10 under Ernesto Valverde in the past season), Messi operates higher up the pitch, constantly at the toes of the opponent even as his team-mates draw players away from him with their short passing game. The position and the system allows Messi the space to be at his devastating best closest to the opposition goal. 

For the national side, however, Messi operates slightly deeper to see more of the ball, making him less effective and largely nullifying his goal-scoring threat. In his team’s 3-0 loss to Croatia, Messi played as an inside right in a 3-4-3 system, switching from the 4-2-3-1 adopted in the 1-1 draw with Iceland. As Croatia employed a man marker, with two or three players crowding him, Messi struggled as Argentina’s makeshift wingbacks — Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuna — failed to offer width while forward Sergio Aguero showed little interest to drop back and play the one-twos with Messi to open up space. 

Messi had 49 touches during the contest and managed just one shot at goal, which was off target. Jorge Sampaoli, who is yet to have a definite answer to the problem, was quick to defend his captain and said: “Because of the reality of the Argentina squad, it sort of clouds Leo’s brilliance. Leo is limited because the team doesn’t gel with him as ideally as it should.”

But blaming Messi’s disappearing act with the national team on a lack of talented support is too simplistic as the Argentina of his generation has boasted of players like Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago in its ranks. The team’s lack of silverware, despite reaching three finals, makes it all the more bewildering. 

Ronaldo won the EURO in 2016, marshalling an underwhelming Portugal to the title. The captain was the team’s main driving force despite coming off early in the final because of an injury. 

Portugal, though not blessed with other exceptional talents, turns into a destructive force as Ronaldo uplifts a band of average footballers with his sheer force. His hat-trick secured the 3-3 draw with Spain, while he was again on the score-sheet in the 1-0 win over Morocco. Enjoying the burden of pressure, CR7 excels in the leadership role much like a Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup, LeBron James in the NBA playoffs or our very own M. S. Dhoni for India and CSK. 

This World Cup may not end in an overall coup for Ronaldo as there are far too many heavy-duty adversaries, but he has already won his personal battle with Lionel Messi.