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Messi and Ronaldo – a rivalry with crushing similarities

On the 30th of June, Messi’s Argentina and Ronaldo’s Portugal were both in action in the Round of 16 of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Last updated: 03.07.2018
Messi and Ronaldo – a rivalry with crushing similarities | Sports Social Blog

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Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are possibly the greatest football players of the 21st century. While for long both of them have downplayed an evident rivalry, it is clear that both of them compete against each other every season and this competition fuels their performances and the fate of the teams they represent. This has definitely been true of both of them for their respective clubs, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, but on the biggest stage of international football, they have merely had their eyes on the prize but haven’t been able to get their hands on it.

On the 30th of June, Messi’s Argentina and Ronaldo’s Portugal were both in action in the Round of 16 of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. While Messi and co were up against France, Ronaldo and his team were to fight it out against Uruguay. If both managed to win their games, a potential Messi-Ronaldo quarter-final clash loomed in the background. But those hopes went down the drain hours later as France beat Argentina 4-3 in an instant World Cup classic, while Portugal fell 2-1 to Uruguay as both teams crashed out prematurely. And the two legends? Messi struggled to get away from France’s midfield trio of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, and Blaise Matuidi, who kept tabs on him all game, but still managed to assist 2 out of the 3 goals Argentina scored in the game. Ronaldo, on the other hand, could just not inspire an insipid Portugal side against a determined Uruguayan defense, led by Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez. Both of them struggled and so did their teams. While Ronaldo scored 4 out of the 6 goals Portugal scored at the World Cup, Messi scored just one goal and provided 2 assists in the 4 games he played. Given the standards these two have set over the years, their performances were underwhelming, to say the least. Both have also failed to score in the combined 14 World Cup knockout games they have played. While Messi has provided 3 assists in 8 games, Ronaldo has not been directly involved in a single goal in the 6 matches he has played. But what exactly triggered these outcomes this time around?

In Messi’s case, the Argentine manager, Jorge Sampaoli, is to be blamed just as much as his players. Right from not playing quality players like Paulo Dybala, Sergio Aguero and Mauro Icardi (not even on the squad list to Russia!) and instead depending on inexperienced players such as Christian Pavon and Maximiliano Meza, to centering his entire strategy on Messi, Sampaoli failed to create a proper team environment. His emphasis on ‘building a team FOR Messi’ in almost every press conference only pushes the point further. In fact, this has been the case with every manager after Alejandro Sabella, who led the team to the final in the 2014 World Cup. Gerardo Martino, Edgardo Bauza and now Sampaoli have all failed to build a team that Messi could lead with support from the talent that Argentina has produced time and again, and instead have been dependent on Messi to produce magic each time and pull them through. Sabella, on the other hand, gave Messi a central role and also allowed players like Angel di Maria to express themselves, on a stunning campaign in Brazil four years ago. This time, however, the Argentina side failed to explode till the final group game against Nigeria. Messi led the team going forward against Iceland, but his missed penalty and lack of support from his teammates meant the Albiceleste got just one point from a game they were fancied to win. Against Croatia, the little man was nowhere to be seen till the second Croatia goal had gone in, trying desperately to inspire a demotivated Argentina side. And while their attack seemed to be clicking against France, their defense was split open way too easily by a pacy, talented French side, led in attack by the sensational Kylian Mbappe. In addition, the Argentine hero alongside Messi in Brazil, Javier Mascherano, had a disastrous World Cup in a tasking role in midfield, where Nigeria, Croatia, and France ran circles around him with ease. He might have made a difference in defense, but Sampaoli’s rigidity and poor tactical planning meant the Argentine legend, who retired after the loss to France, left without a single international honor to his name apart from an Olympic gold medal. And it won’t come as a surprise if the mercurial and legendary Lionel Messi retires the same way. Argentina has sadly wasted their main man’s golden years and that has come back to bite them as well as ‘La Pulga’ time and again in the recent past.

Ronaldo, on the other hand, did not have too bad a campaign. A stunning hat-trick in the opener against Spain and a solo goal that gave Portugal all three points against Morocco meant the Real Madrid star had started things off for himself and his team on the right note, though the team did show signs of vulnerability in the Morocco game. Against Iran, Portugal held on for a point to finish second in their group – something that came back to haunt them because their Round of 16 opponents was an unbeaten Uruguay side. Even before Ronaldo made a single touch in the Uruguay box, the South Americans’ deadly attacking duo, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, had already combined on the counter to put them ahead. Conceding first made the job even harder for Ronaldo and co as they struggled to find a way through, but an organized Uruguay defense kept them out repeatedly. Ronaldo, too, struggled to pull the strings upfront and shuffled between both wings, but just couldn’t do much with the ball at his feet. He, too, was heavily man-marked in a fashion similar to Messi. However, a loss in focus on Uruguay’s part allowed Portugal to level things up after half-time, but minutes later, Portugal were on the back-foot again. Another Uruguay counter attack led to a stunning goal as Cavani curled one in perfectly to get his and Uruguay’s second before limping off with some assistance from Ronaldo in what will go down as an amazing act of sportsmanship. The goal killed the game and Portugal were dumped out. Much like Argentina, Portugal too look up to their talisman to drive them forward. And in the last 3 years, Ronaldo has done it admirably well, and even led the team to the title in Euro 2016. However, in the game against Iran and Uruguay, that just wasn’t the case. In addition, the poor performances of players like Bernardo Silva and Ricardo Quaresma did not help Portugal’s cause in a scenario where Ronaldo wasn’t allowed to do what he does best. It only meant an early exit for the team in what was probably Ronaldo’s last shot at a World Cup trophy.

At 31 and 33 respectively, Messi and Ronaldo are not getting any younger and football fans need to start warming up to the fact that their time as world football’s best in the current era might be coming to an end much sooner than we expect. When the 2022 World Cup begins in Qatar, Messi will be 35 and Ronaldo will be 37 and there is every possibility that both of them will not be a member of their country’s squads. Ronaldo has managed to get himself his share of international glory by winning the Euro in 2016, but for a crestfallen Messi, losses in three Copa America and one World Cup finals has hurt a lot psychologically. Whether he possesses the resilience to play on and have one last shot at glory with Argentina in the 2019 Copa America remains to be seen and football fans will definitely hope he does play on for the Albiceleste, but it has to be acknowledged that both these legends might have well made their final World Cup appearances. And if that is the case, we can all agree it was not supposed to end this way for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.  

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