In football, it’s often difficult to determine which players are the greatest of all time because of the way they span different eras in time.
Puskas, Pele, Cruyff, Maradona and Zidane – arguably five of the all-time greats – all avoided each other at the peaks of their own careers, leaving the tangible question as to who is the best.
Two more names to add to that list will be Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but what separates the pair from all the other illustrious names mentioned is that they are both at their seeming peak at the same time.
Even better is the fact that the duo are going toe-to-toe in the same domestic division – La Liga in Spain. And, sure enough, the pair are head-and-shoulders above everybody else in the scoring charts for the second consecutive season.
Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, which coincides with the time Messi began to score more goals – under the guidance of Pep Guardiola – at the Nou Camp.
Following Ronaldo’s big-money move from Manchester United, he finished third in the scoring charts on 26; eight behind the Argentine magician as the title went to Catalonia.
The next year, it was CR7 who took the individual honours, hitting 40 goals to his great rival’s 31. However, the title again went the way of the Blaugrana.
This term, things appear to be different. Ronaldo’s latest brace – in Saturday’s 3-2 win over Real Betis – moved him to 32 goals for the season.
Messi answered in kind, notching a brace in the 2-0 win at Racing Santander. He stands on 30 goals.
However, the championship appears set to go to Madrid rather than their illustrious neighbours. The gap at the top stands at 10 points, and with Jose Mourinho’s side on a stunning run of 11 consecutive league wins, it appears nothing can stop Los Blancos.
So, does winning the Golden Boot for a second consecutive season – as well as a first title in four years at the Santiago Bernabeu – mean Ronaldo is back up their in comparison with Messi.
To many, the answer is no. One of the key differences between the two is assists. Messi created 10 goals for his teammates in 2009/10, and a staggering 18 last season – the leader in the division. For Ronaldo, it was seven and 10.
This season, the difference between the pair stands at just one assist, although Messi (8) still has the advantage.
For many, it’s Messi’s style of play which sets him apart from Madrid’s £80 million-man. The diminutive Argentine is fleet-of-foot on the ball, with balance, speed and an ability to craft out magical moments with either a telling pass or classy finish.
Ronaldo is much more direct, and whilst he has the tricks to beat players, coupled with a rocket right-foot, the Portuguese winger is far less easy on the eye.
That’s not to say he’s an ugly player in anyway, and a quick glance at highlight reels from his time with Sporting Lisbon, United and Madrid will show many a sensational strike.
One of the other key factors that gives Messi the edge is Barcelona’s dominance over Madrid in head-to-head matches. Whilst Mourinho’s men appear set to win the title, Barca win the first league match in the capital 3-1, and will be favourites for the return clash.
It’s this dominance when the pair go directly against each other that makes Barcelona red-hot favourites to win another European Cup this season. The trophy would be a fourth for Messi, whilst Ronaldo only has one from his time with the Red Devils.
Success on the highest domestic stage has to be a barometer when measuring the two’s own individual greatness, and whilst the team element does hold the main key, an individual will give their side the ‘X Factor’ on the biggest stage. Messi has been able to do that more than Ronaldo for his club.
On the international stage, both have struggled with the weight of expectation put on their shoulders however, with Argentina failing to shine at the 2010 World Cup and Portugal struggling to qualify for Euro 2012 this summer.
For either to be regarded as the very (very) best, success at the World Cup could be pivotal to one of the players taking a major step ahead of the other in the great debate over who is the best. Either European Championship or Copa America success would be another step on the path.
But, forgetting the pressures of greatness, both players are simply outstanding, defining a period of glory for Spanish football as they enjoy a renaissance back to the top of the football tree.
Does one need to be better than the other? Football is a team game, and whilst Barcelona have been enjoying all the glory, Messi has been lavished with praise. If Madrid win the title this season, it’s only right that Ronaldo gets the same treatment.
The glory that comes with the Champions League means that their individual seasons could be defined by either one game or two though, depending on if (or more likely when) the two meet each other in the competition.
It’s a shame that it comes down to such a showdown, but if they meet in the European Cup final, it would be fitting a finale to a season where Ronaldo appears to have closed the individual gap. Knowing Messi, he’ll probably take the opportunity to embarrass all before him on the biggest club stage.