Ahead of Tuesday's clash between Argentina and Portugal at Old Trafford, we look at the rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with the help of Spanish football experts Sid Lowe and Guillem Balague...
Tuesday 18 November 2014 14:47, UK
Argentina's friendly with Portugal at Old Trafford on Tuesday evening represents the latest chapter in a rivalry to be cherished. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will line-up against each other on English soil for the first time in over six years.
That previous meeting came in the Champions League semi-final that saw Ronaldo’s Manchester United edge past Messi’s Barcelona at the same ground they will face each other this week. In between then and now there have been a couple of Champions League wins each and the two men seem to have broken most of the records in the game.
Both have 29 hat-tricks to their name. Messi became the all-time top scorer in the Champions League last month. Ronaldo became the all-time European Championship top scorer last week.
Messi was on target himself last time out too, netting the winner from the penalty spot against Croatia at Upton Park on Wednesday. In their only previous international meeting both men scored – naturally – although it was the brilliant Argentine who got the winner.
That’s been a familiar story over the years. Messi has 12 wins to Ronaldo’s seven with eight drawn games. However, it is the Real Madrid man in the ascendancy right now having won the Ballon d’Or in January and Champions League in May. Real Madrid are even top of La Liga.
Is this a rivalry that’s evolving as both men change their game? Or has the narrative we’ve projected on the two men always been more nuanced than some would suggest? With the help of Spanish football experts Sid Lowe and Guillem Balague, we explore the Messi-Ronaldo dynamic…
"Messi and Ronaldo have really helped to make the narrative that surrounds it crystal clear because it almost is Messi versus Ronaldo. Certainly from a Barcelona point of view, they will tell you that he is home-grown and he's humble but he's brilliant and he wins everything. But he just wins everything because he's brilliant.
"They will then tell you to look at the guy from Real Madrid - they had to spend millions on him and he's arrogant, he's all about himself and he's still not winning everything. That's the Barcelona perspective. The Madrid perspective will say that, yes, they do represent the rivalry because, as usual, the Madrid guy will be presented as the arrogant one. He's the victim of a media that wants to see things in terms of good and bad when it's never that simple.
"I think we've seen the rivalry crystallised in two players and that makes the narrative very powerful and quite seductive as well. Add to that the other thing, that in footballing terms they represent a very different approach. Messi is all about touch, technique and creating space. Ronaldo also has that but is about ambition and drive.
"I think those two players have helped to create something that is seen as almost eternal when, of course, it is not eternal. Once upon a time it was Real Madrid developing their youth players and Barcelona spending millions on players. Barcelona playing the passing football and Real Madrid playing the direct attacking football isn't always true as well. But we have this idea about their identity."
"It’s now clear that Lionel Messi has changed the way he plays the game. He still has the freedom to play wherever he wants, but he has benefited from a greater intensity in training at Barcelona and also from the team being more organised.
"Under Luis Enrique, Barcelona pressure higher up the pitch, they distribute the ball more quickly and there is a lot of movement off the ball. All of that is helping Messi’s decision-making. Previously, he was looking to play around the penalty area and to score goals, but he has now taken a few steps back and you’re more likely to see him in the number 10 position.
"It has taken a while to realise that a 27-year-old body is different to a 21-year-old body. This is an evolution that had been predicted by everybody around him, but he needed to see it and he needed to feel that’s what his body can give him.
"We are seeing the same situation with Cristiano Ronaldo. We will never again see the winger that we used to see flying down the flanks at Old Trafford or in his first few years at Real Madrid. He is now a player that plays up front with freedom.
"Sometimes he plays on the left wing and lately we have seen him on the right wing a lot, joining in with Gareth Bale. He also plays as a number nine next to Karim Benzema and you also see him dropping deep to play a part in the build-up.
"That’s an evolution from his usual way of playing. We started to see some of those changes last season, but it was partly down to physical problems. Now you can see he has accepted his physical limitations and he is going to change the way he plays."
The contrast is delicious and yet, as Jonathan Liew pointed in the Telegraph recently, the two men arguably have more in common with each other than they do with any other person on the planet. They are two of the greatest players of all time, not only close to the peak of their powers at the same moment, but also playing for rival clubs. It’s national team duty on Tuesday though. And Manchester is in for a treat.