Primped and preened for his Ballon d’Or campaign, Cristiano Ronaldo’s start to the 2014-15 season was on another planet compared to any other soccer player in Europe. By the time he’d completed yet another multi-goal performance against Eibar in November, his tally of Liga goals had ticked to 20. After only 11 appearances, Ronaldo’s lead over Lionel Messi in the Pichichi stood at 13 goals.
Little did we know that, three months later, the pendulum would swing back toward his rival. At the time, it was hard to see the comparison as a pendulum at all. Messi had the ability to catch up, but given Ronaldo’s imperious form, there was no reason to think the gap would close because of the Merengue’s wane. Yet now, after another masterful performance this weekend against Levante, Messi has more all-competition goals than his rival, with the sluggish form and sense of crisis that had engulfed him and Barcelona fully transferred to Ronaldo and El Real.
It’s the type of symbiosis that’s come to define the two’s relationship. Even back in November, when Barcelona’s No. 10 was not the man directly behind Ronaldo on Spain’s scoring chart, Messi was still the man the inevitable Ballon d’Or winner was being measured against. And vice-versa. Just as in tennis we had Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe and in Formula One we had Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, in soccer we have Ronaldo and Messi. Whether they like it or not, and an inkling suggests they do like it a little bit, the duo will forever be the others’ barometer.
Two hours after that Ronaldo double in Eibar, Messi scored three against Sevilla. He hasn’t stopped scoring since. Including that game, Messi has 26 goals in his last 18 outings, including five hat tricks. During Barça’s Copa del Rey win over Villarreal last Wednesday, there was a fan inside Camp Nou dressed as an alien (well, the presumption is that he was in costume) holding a sign: “Messi, I come from another planet and I want your shirt.” The Argentine is now the one in the otherworldly form.
Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images.
On Sunday night, Messi celebrated his 300th La Liga appearance — he is still just 27, don’t forget — with another three-goal haul as Barça predictably crushed Levante. He’s the all-time top scorer in Spain’s top flight with 269 goals and is now just two back from Ronaldo in the latest edition of the Pichichi with 26.
That the Blaugrana’s best form of the Luis Enrique era (the team’s enjoying an 11-match winning streak) coincides with Messi’s extra-terrestrial run is no coincidence. He was a substitute the last time Barça lost a game, and after that defeat to Real Sociedad the club spiraled into crisis. Josep Maria Bartomeu called presidential elections; Andoni Zubizarreta was sacked from his role as sporting director; and Messi followed Chelsea on Instagram after a spat with Enrique, leading to a bevy of rumors that he would head to the London club so his wife, Antonella, could spend more time shopping with Cesc Fabregas’s partner.
But crisis is an overused word in Spain, and it now feels like a lifetime since Messi appeared on Barca TV to label all that speculation as “lies, lies, lies”. “They’re throwing shit at us,” he added.
If Barça isn’t in crisis, though, another club has to become possessed by the temporary virus which hops around the Iberian country. With two daily sports newspapers to sell in Barcelona and two more in Madrid, that is the nature of Spanish soccer. Fortunately, Real Madrid has happily slotted themselves into the void, with hyperbole about one titan having alleviated focus on the other.
As Messi’s run has come while his side cut the gap on Madrid to a solitary point, Los Blancos’ more challenging moments have been mirrored the difficulties for their head honcho, Cristiano Ronaldo. While Messi can’t stop scoring, Ronaldo, by his standards at least, seems to have completely forgotten where the goal is. Madrid’s No. 7 is without a league goal in three matches and has scored just four times in 10 appearances since Dec. 12. For both the teams and their starts, the pendulum has swung again.
Ronaldo’s still on 36 goals in all competitions (Messi has just jumped ahead of him onto 37), but at the moment, there is something not quite right about the Portuguese international. It’s as if winning the Ballon d’Or completely consumed him, and the exertion of the campaign trail has sapped some energy. He has managed just three goals since that embarrassing squeal overshadowed his awarding of the trophy for being soccer’s best player.
Photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images.
Age is also catching up with him, as everyone should be well aware of by now after his 30th birthday party spilled into the public eye following El Real’s shambolic performance at Atlético Madrid last weekend. That some of the players, led by Ronaldo, had the audacity to celebrate after shaming themselves in the Madrid derby did not sit well with Madrid’s fans, nor some of the other members of the first team squad.
Madrid’s players will need to make friends pretty quickly, because Barça’s players can’t get enough of each other at the moment. “Messi is the best friend I have,” Neymar beamed after thumping Levante, “both at Barça and away from the football pitch.”
Even Ronaldo and Messi were quite chummy the last time they were snapped together. There was plenty of bromancing going on at FIFA’s glitzy Ballon d’Or event in Switzerland, with both players claiming (possibly through gritted teeth) they would love to play with each other. Ronaldo even admitted his son prefers to watch Messi videos on YouTube.
On that occasion, it was Ronaldo’s pearly whites which were sparkling brightest. Just over a month later, the smile is back on Messi’s face.