Messi closes the door on The Great­est de­bate

CityPress - - Sport - MONDLI MAKHANYA mondli.makhanya@city­press.co.za

The glee on Cris­tiano Ron­aldo’s face when he scored his brace against Hun­gary said it all. His Euro 2016 cam­paign had just clicked into gear.

Af­ter en­dur­ing more than 180 min­utes of frus­tra­tion in the games against Ice­land and Aus­tria, and the 50 open­ing min­utes of the Hun­gary match, the Por­tuguese cap­tain fi­nally found the back of the net. And with such style, too.

His classy back-heel, which brought the teams to 2-2, will surely be en­tered into the goal of the tour­na­ment nom­i­na­tion box.

His next goal, though less im­pres­sive, was ac­tu­ally more cru­cial. With Por­tu­gal trail­ing 2-3 and on their way out of the com­pe­ti­tion, Ron­aldo rose above Hun­gary’s de­fence and pow­ered home one of those clas­sic Ron­aldo head­ers.

A re­lieved Por­tu­gal coach Fer­nando San­tos was ef­fu­sive about how, like so many times be­fore, Ron­aldo had taken per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for res­cu­ing the na­tional side.

“A for­ward like Cris­tiano with­out goals feels like he has not had any­thing to eat,” he said af­ter the game.

But it is ex­actly this over-re­liance on one man dig­ging deep into his men­tal and phys­i­cal re­serves that will ham­per Por­tu­gal’s progress in this com­pe­ti­tion. De­spite hav­ing tal­ented play­ers and do­mes­tic teams that per­form rel­a­tively well in Euro­pean club com­pe­ti­tion, Por­tu­gal have been un­der­whelm­ing in re­cent edi­tions of the Euro and World Cups. It is also this fac­tor that stunts Ron­aldo’s quest for im­mor­tal­ity.

Across the ocean, Lionel Messi, Ron­aldo’s ri­val for the ti­tle of “best foot­baller on the planet”, has been hav­ing a much jol­lier time. Ar­riv­ing in the US with a rib in­jury, he played no part in Ar­gentina’s 2-1 first match vic­tory over Chile.

In the sec­ond game against Panama, he came on as a sec­ond-half sub­sti­tute, scor­ing a hat-trick in the half-hour he was on the field. From there he has been un­stop­pable, slot­ting in cru­cial goals and de­liv­er­ing valu­able as­sists for his team-mates.

Messi’s five goals have made him the tour­na­ment’s sec­ond top goal-scorer so far. In ad­di­tion, he has the high­est as­sists (10) and leads the board in shots on tar­get. His hat-trick in the 4-0 drub­bing of the US in the semi­fi­nal also crowned his tour­na­ment by sur­pass­ing Ar­gen­tine great Gabriel Batis­tuta’s 55goal haul to be­come the coun­try’s high­est net­ter. He put a cherry on top by de­liv­er­ing a free-kick from heaven.

Messi will most likely in­crease his goal tally to­mor­row and go on to lift the cup. In the un­likely event that Ar­gentina is de­nied glory by Chile, Messi will still be able to cel­e­brate per­sonal mile­stones. The big­gest of th­ese is that the four-times Bal­lon d’Or win­ner is no longer spo­ken about in com­par­i­son to his arch-ri­val.

With at least five years and two World Cups left in him, Messi still stands a chance of shat­ter­ing more records and over­shad­ow­ing le­gends Pele and Maradona.

Ron­aldo, on the other hand, will have to be con­tent with con­tain­ing his ri­valry with Messi to La Liga, where he does at least have top qual­ity sur­round­ings to make him shine.

At 31, he prob­a­bly has one World Cup and one more Euro Cup left in him. He will try to use th­ese to sus­tain the de­bate over who the great­est player in the world is – a de­bate that much of the foot­balling world has closed.

His ri­val is now in com­pe­ti­tion with the le­gends of the last mil­len­nium.

PHOTO: CLIVE ROSE / GETTY IM­AGES

CON­TENDER Cris­tiano Ron­aldo is bat­tling to shine at Euro 2016

PHOTO: CHARLES KRUPA / AP

THE GREAT­EST? Ar­gentina’s Lionel Messi is re­garded as the best

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