Thursday, 19 April 2012

Tell the missus Saturday night's sorted: It's Messi v Ronaldo. One day you'll tell the grandchildren about them.

All-white chalk & red-and-blue cheese
Right, drop whatever it is you’re doing Saturday night. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are on the box. Together. The Flea and CR7. Our goalden gods of the electronic age. The miracle workers of our times. One day, circa 2032, we will be able to look back and tell our grand-children: I was alive and spellbound when those two were ripping up record books.
Apparently impervious to injury or exhaustion, they are red-and-blue cheese and all-white-on-the-night chalk: one a tiny Argentine with twinkling toes who needed growth hormone therapy to reach 1.69m (5ft 7in), the other a Portuguese colossus, 1.86m (6ft 1in), and capable of sheer perfection.
They have dominated the best league in the world for three years, two foreigners inspiring a football-fuelled nation which currently boasts both the World Cup and European Championship. Though Messi and Barcelona have had the edge, Ronaldo and Real Madrid are threatening an astonishing comeback this season.
On Tuesday night, CR7 and Real went to Bayern Munich in their Champions League semi-final first leg. Jose Mourinho’s men lost 2-1 to a late Mario Gomez strike but that Mesut Ozil away goal – made by Ronaldo - should see them safely through to the final with the second leg at the Bernebeu.
On Wednesday, Messi and Barca lost 1-0 at Chelsea – for once the Flea, though dangerous, failed to score as the Spaniards hit the woodwork twice and succumbed to an oft-inspired but oft-tumbling Didier Drogba. You still wouldn’t bet against an All-Spanish final in Munich come May.
The fact that neither Messi nor Ronaldo managed a goal this week has been widely highlighted. But their unexpected blanks will only serve to heighten expectation on Saturday night at the Nou Camp, when the Spanish giants meet in the long-awaited El Clasico.
It’s a showdown which will surely decide the destination of La Liga, with Real a precious but precarious four points ahead in the bitter battle between southern Catalan and central Castillian, two nations in one. Three if you include the northern Basques.
The battle between them holds such irony. Messi has on the Ballon D’Or as the world’s best for three years on the trot, but we all know Ronaldo is only a shade adrift since he won it in 2008; he’d be head-and-shoulders better than the rest – Iniesta, Gomez, Van Persie, Robben – if Barca hadn’t spotted an undersized 13-year-old with magic feet a decade ago.
The truth is, there has simply NEVER been anything like these two in the 150-year history of professional football. You can throw up some names. Dixie Dean, who scored 63 goals in a season for Everton just after they changed the off-side rule in 1927-28. Ferenc Deak who scored 66 goals for Hungary's Ferencvaros in 1948-49. Or the great Pele, who equalled that for Santos in 1958. And how about Der Bomber? Germany’s Gerd Muller struck 67 for Bayern Munich in 1972-73.
You can forget those records now. Messi, still only 24, has scored 63 goals in all competitions for Barcelona this season. Ronaldo, 27, has got 53 for Real Madrid. And they’ve both got plenty to come this season, with five to play in their head-to-head battle for La Liga and a probable two more in the Champions League.
Last weekend, fittingly, they broke the Spanish scoring record together. Ronaldo, who reset the mark last year with 40, nodded home an Angel Di Maria cross in the 74th minute of a 3-1 win at the Bernabeu against Sporting Gijon to reach 41 League goals. Two hours later, Messi joined him on 41 with both goals in Barca’s 2-1 win at Levante.
Afterwards the ever-modest Messi, who has never cut his hair fashionably, said: "Luckily things are going well for me, but the important thing is that the team performs well so we can challenge for the title.”
The more flamboyant Ronaldo, crasher of sports cars and father of a mystery child, went for: “I always believe in myself, knowing that from one moment to the next I can do important things. We are very confident and we have our fate in our own hands which is crucial for the final stages of the season.”
Any further confirmation of the Messi/Ronaldo effect can be seen in the goals scored column. Though both global stars have failed to inspire international success – that could change when Portugal compete at Euro2012 this winter and Argentina chase the Copa de America – Real Madrid now have 107 goals, Barca offer 99. Both have played 33 times. In Germany’s Bundesliga, the leaders Dortmund and second-placed Bayern have 69 from 31. In England, Manchester City lead the way with 85 from 34. The Dutch are closest with Ajax registering 84 goals in 30 games. In South Africa, second-placed Mamelodi Sundowns are the best on offer, with a meagre 40 from 25 matches.
Problem is, no other league boasts a pint-sized fireball like Messi. Or an all-singing, all dancing act like Ronaldo. To have both scoring when they want in the same division is something of a modern sporting miracle.
So, Saturday night. Put it in the diary. In front of the telly, with SuperSport3 and HD2 from 7.55pm. Share an evening with the world’s best paid footballers, Messi ($660,000 a week) and Ronaldo ($584,000 a week), and one day you, too, can tell the grandchildren: I remember them well.

Football’s rich list (Daily Mail, 12 March 2012) Includes salaries, bonuses and endorsements
£27.5m Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
£26.2m David Beckham (LA Galaxy)
£24.3m Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
£19.4m Samuel Eto'o (Anzhi)
£17.2m Wayne Rooney (Man United)
£15.7m Sergio Aguero (Man City)
£14.7m Yaya Toure (Man City)
£13.9m Fernando Torres (Chelsea)
£12.9m Kaka (Real Madrid)
£11.9m Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich)

This story first appeared in The New Age as part of my Neal & Pray series. You can read Neal every Tuesday in and follow him on twitter at

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