LIAM MACKEY: Little bit of magic proves Messi the main man again

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi

When Cristiano Ronaldo collected his third Ballon d’Or in January, it was to almost universal acclaim, based on a recognition that the award had indeed gone to the greatest player on earth in 2014, as evidenced by his Champions League medal and a staggering 56 goals for Real Madrid.

I say almost universal acclaim because his great rival Messi didn’t even have him in his top three, demonstrating instead a pronounced club and country bias by choosing Andres Iniesta, Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria. But then, Ronaldo himself was even more restrictive in his choice, pointedly favouring Real by naming team-mates Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema as his leading men.

That voting in the Ballon d’Or can rival Eurovision in the self-interest and face-slapping stakes comes as no surprise, still less the fact that Messi and Ronaldo are hardly top of each other’s Christmas card lists.

But what was a surprise, not least for those of us who’d been lucky enough to see Messi in the flesh in Brazil last summer, was that the World Cup finals seemed to have little or no bearing on the result.

If the tournament had been afforded due recognition, then it’s impossible to see how Ronaldo could have beaten Messi by a margin of two to one, given the former was one of the World Cup’s biggest damp squibs while the latter, at times almost single-handedly, inspired Argentina to a second-place finish.

Personally, I’ve always been a Messi man and not only because I think he edges it over Ronaldo in terms of superior technique and general wow factor. There’s also the fact that the Argentinian is much more of a team player, as committed to tracking back and doing the dirty work as any of his less gifted colleagues.

All those qualities, and more, were on show at Camp Nou when — again, it seems, to almost universal acclaim — Messi reclaimed his preeminent status in the world game, as Barca toyed with Man City before dumping them from the Champions League in midweek.

Stats are one thing but the bare record will never show the said-it-all spectacle of Pep Guardiola burying his head in his hands as Messi left James Milner flailing on the turf with the most audacious and humiliating of nutmegs.

And note, this wasn’t showboating for the sake of it, simply —well, simply if you’re Lionel Messi — the most devastatingly efficient way of taking out an opponent before launching yet another one of those dazzling, multi-pronged Barca attacks.

In Dublin on the morning after, Jamie Carragher was still buzzing from his trip to Catalonia, even if it had come at the expense of confirming what we’ve known for quite a while now, that the Premier League has fallen some way behind Europe’s elite.

“It was a privilege to be there,” the former Liverpool legend told us. “We’re there representing the Premier League, if you like, we’re doing Sky, but you couldn’t help sort of enjoy watching it even though it was affecting one of our teams and it looked like City were getting a bit of a battering.

“The little magician, the main man, Messi, looks back to his best. You saw what he did with the nutmegs on different players. As you’re going to close him down you’re probably thinking ‘don’t nutmeg me, don’t nutmeg me’ and he still does it. We all love him, we all rave about him. But the numbers him and Ronaldo achieve each year in terms of goals and assists, it’s something that will really hit home in 10 years’ time when they’ve finished.

“We rave about players who get 30 goals a season because you should. But these lads are getting 50 or 60. It’s off the scale.”

As to who is the better of the two, Carragher is unequivocal. “I’ve always had Messi as number one,” he said. “The last couple of years I think it was right Ronaldo won world player of the year. But the difference between both players is that Ronaldo is goals and power and pace. The performance from Messi against City wasn’t about goals or assists, it was just sheer ‘I can’t believe some of the things he’s doing’.

“I don’t think Ronaldo is really that type. Listen, he takes your breath away the way he plays, of course, but Messi has things in his game — the nutmegs and flicks, the one-two in the box and the shot — that I don’t think Ronaldo has. Messi probably hasn’t got the power, strength or heading ability Ronaldo has but, in terms of sheer class and quality, Messi just trumps him.”

With which I wholeheartedly concur, though I’d be a bit worried for Barca that their habit of taking the foot off the gas and allowing outplayed opponents a glimpse of a lifeline — as they did when conceding that penalty to City on Wednesday — could come back to haunt them as early as that mouth-watering quarter-final against a PSG side who, as they showed against Chelsea, lack nothing in resilience to go with their quality.

Mind, Zlatan and company will still have to find a way to keep Messi quiet — so good luck with that, mon amis.


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