Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo changed what was normal at soccer’s elite level. At the peak of their powers, it was entirely ordinary for both players to average more than a goal-a-game over a whole season. The 2011/12 season, for instance, saw Ronaldo net 46 times in 38 La Liga appearances. Messi scored 50 in 37.
Neither player is capable of charting such numbers now, but they pushed each other to unprecedented heights for the best part of a decade, defining an entire era of the European game. For a time, the historic rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid was merely a vehicle for Messi and Ronaldo to duel as individuals.
Of course, the two players have been separated from each other since 2018, with Ronaldo leaving the Spanish capital for a new challenge with Juventus. This week, however, will see them reunited in competition as Barcelona travel to Turin to take on the Scudetto holders in the Champions League. Messi and Ronaldo will once again see the whites of each others’ eyes.
This might be the final time (including the return fixture to be played between Barcelona and Juventus at the Camp Nou on December 8) that the two legends face each other in a competitive arena. It’s entirely feasible these two group games in this season’s Champions League could bring down the curtain on the greatest individual rivalry soccer has ever witnessed.
There is no doubting these are two players well into the twilight of their careers. While at Real Madrid, Ronaldo had a team built around him to mask the growing shortcomings in his game. The Portuguese forward has been left more exposed since making the switch to Juventus, where he was expected to fit into an already established team unit.
After a slightly underwhelming first season in Italy, Ronaldo found his scoring touch in the second half of last season, finishing the 2019/20 Serie A campaign with 31 goals in 33 games. But just as the 35-year-old appeared to have got to grips with ‘Sarri-ball,’ Andrea Pirlo was hired following Maurizio Sarri’s sacking this summer.
One wonders if Ronaldo would have made the move to Turin in the first place had he known Juventus would rattle through three different head coaches in his first three years there. Time is precious for the Portuguese forward at this stage of his career and there is a sense Juve are yet to truly harness their €112 million man.
The last two years have been turbulent for Messi too, with the Argentine coming close to forcing his way out of Barcelona this summer. The Catalans have also gone through three head coaches in quick succession, with 2020 seeing Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien and Ronald Koeman all sit in the Camp Nou dugout.
Political turmoil threatens to overshadow all at Barca, with a vote of no confidence against club president Josep Bartomeu currently active, and Messi has seemingly allowed it to affect his performances on the pitch. The 33-year-old is still capable of winning a match almost entirely on his own, scoring 25 and assisting 21 in La Liga last season, but there has been a lethargy to his performances of late.
Messi is currently playing within himself. That could be due to his lack of a pre-season or his uncertainty over the role he is performing in Koeman’s new system. It might be, in part, because he doesn’t have someone like Ronaldo to push him. After all, Messi hasn’t scored or assisted in a Clasico since his great adversary left Spain over two years ago.
While Ronaldo became moved himself into the centre forward role to eke as much as possible out of the latter years of his career, Messi has done the opposite and slipped deeper into midfield. His aforementioned tally of 21 La Liga assists hinted at a change of role, one which sees him charged with creating as much as scoring.
Koeman seemingly has other ideas about this, using Messi both as a centre forward and on the right side of his Barcelona attack over the early part of this season. The Dutchman wants his best player, arguably the best player of all time, to focus his efforts on the areas of the pitch where he can do the most damage to opponents.
Barcelona and Juventus find themselves at critical junctures. Both clubs know where they want to go, but are struggling to plot a way there. Messi and Ronaldo still hold the key to unlocking those objectives and this week’s clash, the 34th competitive meeting between the two players, could reveal which is closer to doing so.