Thursday, 11 October 2012

Why Lionel Messi Was The Best Thing To Happen To Cristiano Ronaldo

By Shane Thomas

Sunday night continued the vintage era of clasicos between Real Madrid and Barcelona, with the game ending in a breathless 2-2 draw. But the latest chapter in this magnum opus may go on to be one of the most indelible in the memory, simply because it showcased both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in all their splendour. And while history is likely to judge Messi as the finest of his - and possibly any - era, a lot of credit must go to Ronaldo for this.

Back in the 2010/11 season, barely anyone would even try to argue that the Portugese was superior to the Argentine. In the series of clasicos that concluded that season, it was Jose Mourinho's first campaign in charge at the Santiago Bernabeu, and he tried to stifle the games, making them pretty ugly affairs. Ronaldo suffered as a  result, and Barcelona and Messi came out on top, ending the season with the La Liga title and the Champions League trophy, in one of Wembley's finest ever displays.

Ronaldo did score the winner over Barca, in that season's Copa Del Rey final, but the Spanish Cup isn't what CR7 was expecting when he departed Manchester United as the world's finest player. For someone of his ego, it irritated him to be second best in the eyes of many. Ronaldo even went as far to deem himself the better man, declaring that he was the superior exponent of free-kicks and winning headers.

It was a quote that would come back to haunt him, as the individual rivalry hit its nadir for Cristiano early last season. Last December, Barcelona led a closely fought encounter 2-1. Los Blancos attacked down the left, with the cross finding Ronaldo unmarked. He headed towards the target with the goal at his mercy. And missed.

The shock in the stadium was mirrored on Ronaldo's face. A player as good as CR7, probably the best (attacking) header of a ball in the world, failed to score with such a gilt-edged chance in the world's most high profile match. His profligacy was only highlighted as Cesc Fabregas made it 3-1 moments later, securing the match for the Catalans.

The post-match reaction towards Ronaldo ranged from critical to downright vitriolic. It only served to underscore the brilliance of Messi, all humble, selfless and majestic. Ronaldo was the pantomime villain - even in the eyes of some of the Madrid fans - a prima donna who demanded fealty without doing anything to earn it. Some posited the theory that despite his phenomenal goal record, his 80 million euro fee was a waste of money.

This is where the story took an unexpected turn, but one that all football fans should be pleased with. There was only one way in which CR7 could redress the balance, and that was on the pitch.

In the return clasico at the Camp Nou, the score was tied at 1-1, before Mesut Ozil played Ronaldo clear. He took a quick look to check the position of goalkeeper Victor Valdes, before expertly curling the ball around the Spaniard, winning the game. However, let's be clear. The Portugal captain didn't have a sudden attack of humility. In one of the most memorable celebrations of recent memory, he outstretched his palms, turned them downward, and then nonchalantly implored for "calm" from his rapturous teammates, and around 96,000 fulminating Barca fans.

The days of CR7 being branded a "choker" are long gone. His two goals in Sunday night's classic made him the first Real Madrid player in history to score in six successive clasicos. And when you think that strikers like Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Emilio Butragueno and the Brazilian Ronaldo have all donned that famous white shirt, that takes some doing.

With Real Madrid the current Spanish champions, it's fair to say that CR7 is no longer in Messi's shadow. Now they both fight for the same spotlight, never evinced more clearly than this past weekend. Ronaldo now has 120 goals in his last 108 games. His scoring record is no longer phenomenal, it's supernatural.

Many neutral fans have preferred Messi to Ronaldo, thinking one man a nicer character than the other. However, it was Messi who waved an imaginary yellow card at the referee on Sunday, demanding that 'the man in black' book Xabi Alonso, while Ronaldo played through the pain barrier after injuring his shoulder in the second-half.

Let's be clear, this post isn't meant to be a hatchet job on Messi. I still regard him as the world's best, and I expect him to go on to be undoubtedly the greatest we've ever seen. But his brilliance - like all good rivalries - has forced his professional bete noire to raise his game. He may have spent the past few years cursing his name, but it's resulted in CR7 producing a level of quality that surpassed his brilliance at Manchester United.

Cristiano deserves credit for putting the histrionics to one side, and answering his many critics in the most effective way. We now have not one legend currently in the game, but two. It's a case of both men needing the other as a benchmark in the battle for footballing superiority.

And who will end this sporting battle as the victor? Barcelona or Real Madrid? Messi or Ronaldo? I care not a jot. While they continue to produce football the quality of which they have displayed over the past three seasons, the only winners are us.

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