The first Clasico meeting of the league season approaches. But aside from unlikely subplots and an even more surprising points differential between Barcelona and Real Madrid, how do Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo match up from previous Clasicos?
The battle between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho is over, but the one that was sure to outlast that of the two managers rages on. It's a battle that sees two players, and seemingly only those two, battling for supremacy as the best in the world.
But are they on equal footing following past meetings?
5-0 Nou Camp 2010
The 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid at the Nou Camp back in 2010 set the tone for the Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi era.
It was the benchmark. It not only displayed Barcelona's dominance in world football, but the show of footballing class and otherworldly ability gave Real Madrid so much to do going forward.
It was a psychological victory for Barcelona more than anything. It meant that Real Madrid would go into subsequent Clasicos with fear of a similar result.
The game also highlighted just how effective Lionel Messi was at playing a creative role as well as the finisher for his team. His pass for David Villa—a pass that sent the ball at nearly 20 yards to Villa through the middle of the pitch—was one of the highlights in modern football. It was Kaka to Hernan Crespo in the 2005 Champions League final.
It also showed just how ineffective Ronaldo was. The game hampered him more than anything for future matches. He was the player in the Real Madrid squad who was supposed to bring the team onto the level of Barcelona—along with Jose Mourinho, of course—and any future failings would see the criticism that we've been so accustomed to in the recent past.
1-2 Nou Camp 2012
Undoubtedly, Real Madrid's best performance since Jose Mourinho took charge and forged another battle inside the war with his counterpart in the Barcelona dugout.
Alexis Sanchez had just levelled the game at 1-1 following Sami Khedira's earlier goal. But Cristiano Ronaldo stunned La Liga with an instant reply and the goal that sealed Real Madrid's capture of the league title.
It was a breathtaking show of resilience and nerve in such a heated environment. It also went a long way in banishing that performance at the Bernabeu in December of 2011.
The Sevilla game that followed the Bernabeu Clasico was impressive, Real hit the Andalusian club for six with Ronaldo leading the charge. But the match at the Nou Camp was something else: Ronaldo had won Real Madrid the league title and displayed a performance that was worthy of the battle between him and Lionel Messi.
1-2 Copa Del Rey Quarterfinal 2012 Bernabeu
It's important to paint the picture of Cristiano Ronaldo in the correct light when talking about recent Clasico matches. The Portuguese forward was not shying away, he was not abandoning his duties and responsibilities for Real Madrid; there just happened to be a player on the opposing team who was arguably better.
But this first leg of the Copa Del Rey quarterfinal once again saw Lionel Messi as the creator for Eric Abidal's winner with around 15 minutes left.
Ronaldo had opened the scoring early in the game, hoping to set his team off for their first win against Barcelona inside 90 minutes. But Carles Puyol replied immediately after the break and Messi fed Abidal through on goal in a congested final third.
It was a pass that was fitting and appropriate to the status of Messi and what he can do in big-game situations. He once again won the game for Barcelona with ingenuity that we're so used to seeing from the Catalan side.
The Argentine forward doesn't need to have his name printed on the score sheet to be remembered. With him, you pick up on the build up, the smaller but equally important details. It's a consistency about Messi's game that should put him into a bracket of his own.
0-2 Champions League Semifinal 2011 Bernabeu
Lionel Messi was once again the source of the breakthrough late in this match. Real Madrid had managed to frustrate and hold Barcelona off until the 76th minute when Messi broke the deadlock. But it was his second of the night that was by far the most captivating, possibly the most memorable of these Clasicos of the past two or three years.
Sergio Busquets played a small yet wonderful role in the creation of the goal. It oozed with class the way the midfielder simply held the ball for a moment before placing it into Messi's path. The Argentine tore through the Real Madrid defence, beating four players as well as Iker Casillas in goal.
It was an outstanding moment of individual and team genius.
It's not so much that you want to take away from what Cristiano Ronaldo has done or is capable of, but rather it's a nod to a player who has taken the greater spotlight and continued to amaze in the most high-profile match in European football.
It would be amiss to say there's nothing it in between the two of them. Messi has won seemingly countless matches for Barcelona over the past few years, while Ronaldo has had to grow and really feel comfortable in the setting.
Messi has been better, no doubt. He's been consistent. He's the difference between the two teams. But it's also that 5-0 win at the Nou Camp that really helped Barcelona going forward.
Ronaldo needed to overcome that defeat as much as the rest of the Madrid team. They didn't look equals or close rivals on the day, at least not in terms of quality and the continued debate of the gulf in class in Spain.
Would it be too far to say Lionel Messi has been a 10? But wouldn't it be inappropriate to say that the best player and the best performances are not quite worthy of the top mark?
Messi has left a mark on the score line in so many of the Clasicos in recent years. When all hope seemed lost in the Spanish Super Cup earlier this season, he pulled another wonder goal out of the hat at the Bernabeu.
Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, is deserving of plenty of praise, too. But would it be correct to say that he just falls short? And not because of his own inabilities, but rather because of the wizardry of Messi.
He's come a long way since the 5-0 and even from that game last December in the Bernabeu. He's won Real Madrid two trophies from Clasico meetings, climbing highest and taking advantage of that theory that you're always at your weakest immediately after scoring.
Ronaldo takes an eight for his performances, predominantly boosted by the good work he's done for the league and Copa Del Rey victories. However, he's just lacking in the same consistency as Messi.
But it does appear that we're entering a new setting for clashes between the two teams. Pep Guardiola's departure and Ronaldo's goal at the Nou Camp last season seems to have forced us into a new era, one where the games are not as clear-cut and easy to predict.
Will the recent performances of Real Madrid and Ronaldo in particular send him up onto another tier for future Clasico meetings? He's certainly doing the right things.