This World Cup may not end in an over­all coup for Cris­tiano Ron­aldo

This World Cup may not end in an over­all coup for Ron­aldo as there are far too many heavy­duty ad­ver­saries, but he has al­ready won his per­sonal bat­tle with Lionel Messi.


as there are far too many heavy­duty ad­ver­saries, but he has al­ready won his per­sonal bat­tle with Lionel Messi.

Blessed are we to wit­ness one of the most enduring sports ri­val­ries of gen­er­a­tions. The Lionel Messi and Cris­tiano Ron­aldo du­op­oly has ruled world foot­ball from 200■ on­wards when the Por­tuguese won his first Bal­lon D’OR (while play­ing for Manch­ester United). The two have dom­i­nated the global foot­ball dis­course ever since and have left oth­ers miles be­hind to make the universal arena a play­ground for two.

Over the past 10 years, they have ap­pro­pri­ated all individual hon­ours and even their clubs — Barcelona and Real Madrid — have con­trolled the foot­ball nar­ra­tive, win­ning seven out of 10 Cham­pi­ons League crowns, six Su­per Cups and Club World Cup and nine Span­ish ti­tles. While both clubs,

con­sid­ered Euro­pean roy­alty, have en­joyed reg­u­lar na­tional and con­ti­nen­tal suc­cess, the de­gree of this dom­i­nance em­pha­sises the roles played by the two mod­ern greats.

They have scored, cre­ated chances and won games on their own, while of­ten mak­ing op­po­nents look like mere school­boys, al­ways a sec­ond early or a sec­ond too late in their tack­les. The amount of con­trol ex­er­cised by Messi and Ron­aldo on games they play is usu­ally very ev­i­dent. They are the ful­crums of their club sides de­spite the pres­ence of many other foot­balling greats. While Ron­aldo has mod­elled his game on speed, force and easy power, for Messi his great­est as­sets have been his awe­some bal­ance and fiendishly wicked trick­ery of the feet.

It is only nat­u­ral for the world to weigh in on this ul­ti­mate ri­valry and camps are di­vided as ar­gu­ments rage to de­cide who is the great­est. Pele, who be­daz­zled the world with his wiz­ardry at the 195■ World Cup, ac­knowl­edges the im­mense su­pe­ri­or­ity of the two over the rest and says: “It’s sad that you have only two play­ers in the world to

choose from. Ear­lier we had Jo­han Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Pele, Zico. All over the world now there are only two play­ers.”

The King of foot­ball has his favourite too and adds: “Ron­aldo is a great goal scorer, but in terms of a com­plete player, there’s no doubt Messi is the best. Scor­ing is im­por­tant, no doubt, but if you do not have any­one to pre­pare, then the ball is not enough. For my team I pre­fer Messi. He’s been the most sta­ble in the last 10 years.”

How­ever, the 201■ World Cup has thrown in a new an­gle to this de­bate. While Por­tu­gal with four strikes from their skip­per Ron­aldo has waltzed its way to the knock­out stage, Messi’s Ar­gentina has looked di­shev­elled, with the cap­tain, too, show­ing signs of anx­i­ety which has stolen the sheen from his game.

The Ar­gen­tine has looked rather for­lorn and has been rarely in­volved in the game. Since his emer­gence in 2006, var­ied na­tional team man­agers have found it hard to cre­ate a sys­tem that en­hances and chan­nelises Messi’s bril­liance. For Barcelona, where he has played a va­ri­ety of roles (after

play­ing on the wings, or cen­trally be­hind a striker or even a false No. 9 over the years, Messi has ex­celled as a con­ven­tional No. 10 un­der Ernesto Valverde in the past sea­son), Messi op­er­ates higher up the pitch, con­stantly at the toes of the op­po­nent even as his team­mates draw play­ers away from him with their short pass­ing game. The po­si­tion and the sys­tem al­lows Messi the space to be at his dev­as­tat­ing best clos­est to the op­po­si­tion goal.

For the na­tional side, how­ever, Messi op­er­ates slightly deeper to see more of the ball, mak­ing him less ef­fec­tive and largely nul­li­fy­ing his goal­scor­ing threat. In his team’s 3­0 loss to Croa­tia, Messi played as an in­side right in a 3­4­3 sys­tem, switch­ing from the 4­2­3­1 adopted in the 1­1 draw with Ice­land. As Croa­tia em­ployed a man marker, with two or three play­ers crowd­ing him, Messi strug­gled as Ar­gentina’s makeshift wing­backs — Ed­uardo Salvio and Mar­cos Acuna — failed to of­fer width while for­ward Ser­gio Aguero showed lit­tle in­ter­est to drop back and play the one­twos with Messi to open up space.

Messi had 49 touches dur­ing the con­test and man­aged just one shot at goal, which was off tar­get. Jorge Sam­paoli, who is yet to have a def­i­nite an­swer to the prob­lem, was quick to de­fend his cap­tain and said: “Be­cause of the re­al­ity of the Ar­gentina squad, it sort of clouds Leo’s bril­liance. Leo is limited be­cause the team doesn’t gel with him as ide­ally as it should.”

But blam­ing Messi’s dis­ap­pear­ing act with the na­tional team on a lack of tal­ented sup­port is too sim­plis­tic as the Ar­gentina of his gen­er­a­tion has boasted of play­ers like Aguero, Gon­zalo Higuain, Javier Mascher­ano and Fer­nando Gago in its ranks. The team’s lack of sil­ver­ware, de­spite reach­ing three fi­nals, makes it all the more be­wil­der­ing.

Ron­aldo won the EURO in 2016, mar­shalling an un­der­whelm­ing Por­tu­gal to the ti­tle. The cap­tain was the team’s main driv­ing force de­spite com­ing off early in the fi­nal be­cause of an in­jury.

Por­tu­gal, though not blessed with other

ex­cep­tional tal­ents, turns into a de­struc­tive force as Ron­aldo up­lifts a band of av­er­age foot­ballers with his sheer force. His hat­trick se­cured the 3­3 draw with Spain, while he was again on the score­sheet in the 1­0 win over Morocco. En­joy­ing the bur­den of pres­sure, CR7 ex­cels in the lead­er­ship role much like a Diego Maradona in the 19■6 World Cup, Lebron James in the NBA playoffs or our very own M. S. Dhoni for In­dia and CSK.

This World Cup may not end in an over­all coup for Ron­aldo as there are far too many heavy­duty ad­ver­saries, but he has al­ready won his per­sonal bat­tle with Lionel Messi.


Adren­a­line plus: All pumped up is foot­ball ace Cris­tiano Ron­aldo in the match against Spain. The Por­tu­gal cap­tain scored a hat­trick and helped his team draw 3­3 with its Iberian ri­val.


How­itzer: Ron­aldo’s third goal was the best of the three that he scored against Spain. It came off a free­kick, a ver­i­ta­ble screamer that by­passed the Span­ish wall and went into the right cor­ner of the net.


The GOAT: After open­ing his ac­count against Spain with a penalty kick, Ron­aldo, in the course of his cel­e­bra­tion, rubbed his chin as team­mate Bruno Fernandes looked on. On­look­ers be­lieved that Ron­aldo was sig­ni­fy­ing a goat, which, if taken as an acro­nym, GOAT, ex­pands to the Great­est Of All Time!


Un­stop­pable: Ron­aldo also scored against Morocco, as he led Por­tu­gal to a 1­0 vic­tory.


An ad­mir­ing ri­val: Spain head coach Fer­nando Hierro gives Ron­aldo a pat after hand­ing over the ball, which had run loose be­yond the side­line.


Be­lieve it or not: Yes, a lack­lus­tre Lionel Messi did in­deed mess up a penalty against Ice­land.


When the Croats took Ar­gentina by the throat: Messi was off­colour again as Croa­tia ran cir­cles around Ar­gentina. Croa­t­ian star Luka Mo­dric, vy­ing for the ball with Messi here, came up with a su­perb goal as his team won 3­0.

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