Cristiano Ronaldo is not an easy man to sympathize with. Rich, handsome and fabulously gifted, Ronaldo struts an inexorable course toward greatness and will go down among the very best to have stepped foot on a football field.
But how would you feel if every time you did something otherworldly at work—like score successive hat tricks—the most likely response was for people to bring up the one person who can it do slightly better?
Those numbers are beyond stunning. They are the stuff of video-game ridiculousness and heady boyhood fantasy, and they put Ronaldo's goals-per-game ratio for Madrid ahead of those achieved in the careers of Pele, Romario and Ferenc Puskas.
If Ronaldo's feats were unique to his generation, we'd be putting the Portuguese on a pedestal so high you could barely see the gleam of his hair gel or the glint of those shiny white teeth. He'd be our footballing Elvis, and everything else would be a distant second.
But for Lionel Messi, that is. But for the fact Messi has scored 167 goals in his last 154 games for Barcelona. And but for the fact that Messi—when you take your C-Ron blinkers off—is just that little bit more talented and drizzled with just that little bit more magic sauce.
Ronaldo might be Elvis, but he's Elvis in the time of the The Beatles—with Messi playing John and Paul and a team of George and Ringos in Barcelona shirts alongside him. Whatever Ronaldo does and however often he does it, he'll always be compared to the man on the other side of the Clasico rivalry.
Last night Messi was off-duty. He'd done his work at Benfica on Tuesday—setting up both goals in Barca's 2-0 win—and was likely relaxing at home, watching the evening's Champions League action unfold while juggling peas with both feet and occasionally scissor-kicking one into his mouth.
Over to C-Ron, and he didn't disappoint. A hat trick at Ajax followed the one he'd scored against Deportivo La Coruna in La Liga and took Ronaldo's season tally to 12 goals from 10 games.
Ronaldo's contribution was clearly more significant than that delivered by Messi the night before, but while the Argentine was once again given the benefit of unqualified adulation, Ronaldo's performance—all too inevitably—seemed to prompt as many mentions of Messi on Twitter as it did his hat trick.
That's the problem with being Ronaldo. Every time he does something impressive, there are thousands of people who react by screaming he's better than Messi, and there are thousands more screaming back that he's not even close.
The former is not true; the latter is completely unnecessary. But you can't help feeling the conversation undermines Ronaldo and empowers Messi the louder it gets.
As a man whose ego has loomed large throughout his career, Ronaldo must long for a day when his name can appear without Messi's beside it. We know he was riled by Danish fans who chanted Messi's name during Euro 2012, and in his reaction, Ronaldo gave us a hint of his underlying frustration with the comparison that stalks his every achievement in football.
That's why the Clasico—for as long as it pits Messi against Ronaldo—will always take its lead narrative from the battle that unfolds between the two best players in the world.
Everybody knows Barcelona vs. Real Madrid is bigger than Messi and Ronaldo. It runs far, far deeper than that, but nobody can deny that the most compelling storyline at Camp Nou on Sunday will be the respective influences of Messi and Ronaldo.
Ronaldo, as ever, will feel he has a point to prove. Madrid are struggling in La Liga, but a victory against Barca would resurrect the defense of their title and make a statement to the world that Jose Mourinho's team are genuine contenders on every front this season.
Moreover, Ronaldo knows that games against Barcelona are his only chance to take the plaudits from Messi without being cast in his shadow afterwards. If Ronaldo outperforms Messi with both men on the same field, then—for a brief period, at least—there's nowhere else for the argument to go.
The danger for Ronaldo is in trying too hard to make it happen. We've seen him in desperate-hero mode for Madrid and Portugal over the years, and occasionally he gets lost in a one-man quest to shoot from everywhere and win games on his own.
Mourinho has an important role in making sure that doesn't happen on Sunday night. He'll want his team to go at Barca early, and he'll want Ronaldo to run at their makeshift defense at every opportunity. But he'll be telling his best player to relax and do what comes naturally.
Ronaldo's biggest challenge at Camp Nou will be to access the calmness that runs through Messi, especially if things don't go well early on. If he does that, then there's every chance the world's second-best player can win out and briefly experience what it's like to be on top.
Messi will be remembered as the king of their rivalry, but every Clasico offers Ronaldo the chance to put on the crown.
Barcelona vs. Real Madrid is about much more than Messi vs. Ronaldo, but there's no denying their coming together continues to represent the most compelling element of the most vital fixture in world football.
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