Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi: Could they ever play together?

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Such is the narrative-driven nature of football that often great friends are pitted against one another as enemies. It's game of good v evil, of adversaries and rivalries. It's black and white. At least that's how it's sold to fans by media outlets looking for an angle or a hook.

Over the summer for example it was Alvaro Negredo v Roberto Soldado - two Spaniards coming to the Premier League with a point to prove ahead of the World Cup in Brazil next summer.

They were compared, contrasted, pitted as rivals and examined to within an inch of their lives. Battles raged as supporters from both camps claimed their man was best and either Manchester City or Tottenham had got the best deal.

On paper the head-to-head angle works, but luckily real life has a few more shades of grey. After Manchester City's 6-0 defeat of Tottenham a week or so ago, Negredo was seen tenderly  comforting a distraught looking Soldado in the tunnel, offering support to his countryman as his goal drought continued. Not so much rivals, but members of the forward's fraternity.

So it is no surprise that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the Russia and America of the football world; arch-enemies no matter what they say.

In all likelihood there is a little bit of friction between them as they both strive to be the defining player of the era, but it is hard to believe that even the smallest fraction of their own time is devoted to thinking about each other compared to fans on social media.

There, there's no middle ground or nuance. Choose a side, bellow a battle cry and delve head-first, kicking-and screaming into the nearest person you can pick an argument with. 

That stance is vaguely understandable. Players, current and retired are constantly asked for their view on the pair, while members from the Barcelona and Real Madrid camps are often found spouting partisan nonsense to back up one's claim to be known as the greatest.

"If I could sign one player for Real Madrid, it wouldn't be Messi, I'd rather reinforce another position," Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti told Italian broadcaster Radio Capital today.

"We have Cristiano, who needs Messi? God gave him [Ronaldo] a special gift."

But rather than pit them against one another so mercilessly, has anyone thought about them working together?

As the old adage goes, great players will flourish alongside great players regardless - so instead of working as great rivals; could, hypothetically, Messi and Ronaldo ever play together as a great pairing?

Putting aside reality for one second, there is little evidence to suggest that they couldn't play together at one club.

Both players have truly astonishing goal records over the past few years, and although they would fit naturally into the same team because they play in different positions, the great fear would be that they are too selfish to flourish alongside another truly prolific scorer.

Former Real Madrid ace Guti doesn't share that sentiment.

"If I could have both of them, I would," he said last year. "I believe they could play alongside each other, because they don't play in the same position."

The evidence of this summer and the season so far suggests that wouldn't be the case. In La Liga this season the pair have created 36 chances for others; by way of comparison Cesc Fabregas, La Liga's leading assist provider, has made 29 chances for others.

That's a fairly favourable comparison for two players not in the team to provide goals for others but to be at the sharp end scoring them.

Equally the arrival at the Bernabeu of Gareth Bale and Neymar at the Nou Camp has provided an intriguing example of how the pair could react when to having their role as undisputed king challenged. 

Ronaldo's goal scoring has if anything improved since Bale signed over the summer, while before his injury Messi showed no signs of letting up with Neymar filling David Villa's old spot on the left. 

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of whether they could play together is their respective styles and personality; could Messi play in a counter-attacking team?

The Argentine is often accused of only flourishing because he has a team built around him, so would he work outside of his Catalan comfort zone? Given how they are portrayed in the media, would they work together as an attacking unit? 

As far as the latter goes, that seems a fairly straight-forward question. Both are undoubtedly dedicated to being the best they can be but extol the virtues of working for the team.

Plus, and whisper it quietly, Ronaldo may not be the ruthless, focused athletic machine he is positioned to be. In interviews he comes across as a reasonable, well-adjusted man - although admittedly, launching a new range of underpants with a 40-foot cutout of your rippling naked torso isn't the best way to dispel the myth. 

If, somehow, they ever do play alongside each other, there is very little chance that one would not try just as hard as they have ever done to make it work.

As for the remaining questions they are almost impossible to answer. The fact Messi has everything he needs to succeed at Barca is often used a stick to beat him with but that is grossly unfair; in 2012 he equalled Gabriel Batistuta's record for most international goals scored in a year by finding the back of the net 12 times with Argentina without a tiki-taka team-mate in sight.

Plus to suggest his success with Barcelona is somehow lessened by the fact he has Xavi and Iniesta alongside him is pointless because having not played for another club team there is no comparison to be made, so for now there is no reason to accept that he wouldn't be great anywhere else.

With regards to playing style, both are used to playing for clubs who dominate possession, and club that could field both in the same side would likely be exactly the same so they are already well adjusted in that respect.

Back in reality and the likelihood of them ever playing together seems remote. Politics, finances and perhaps even a little bit of reluctance from both parties would count against it ever happening.

But history is littered with great duos forming even better partnerships; think Puskas and Di Stefano, Rijkaard and Van Basten, Garrincha and Pele; more recently Rooney and Van Persie and Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.

And anyway, even if you think they couldn't work alongside one another, wouldn't you love to live in a world where the Messi v Ronaldo debate didn't exist? What heaven.

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Lionel Messi
Cristiano Ronaldo
Real Madrid
La Liga

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