How La Liga Could Be Settled by Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo Shootout

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How La Liga Could Be Settled by Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo Shootout
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Lionel Messi struck twice against Sevilla.

So Barcelona are top of La Liga again after just one week.

But it’s only a one-goal difference: Real Madrid and Atletico are both on 57 points as well, and it means this has become the closest run-in for quite some time.

As the standings reflect, so far so even for these three sides.

But look a little closer, and the differences between the performances of these teams are clear.

The strongest Atletico side for quite some time are doing magnificently to keep pace with Spain’s two giants.

But if any part of Diego Simeone’s machine starts to falter, his side are in trouble. 

Against Almeria, Thibaut Courtois was sidelined through injury, and his team paid the price.

The replacement goalkeeper, Dani Aranzubia, was at fault for the first goal and then was sent off for a foul—which led to the second, through a penalty.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Diego Costa is important but not on the same level as Ronaldo and Messi.

And Diego Costa, while an excellent striker, doesn’t have the sheer ability to pull his team up by their bootstraps as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi do.

The key to La Liga’s title race lies with those two players.

There are other factors, certainly.

Blaugrana supporters are not particularly impressed with the football that Tata Martino is serving up—especially some of the defending.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Ronaldo was dismissed against Bilbao.

The likes of Jese and Neymar will have an impact and can fill the gap when either Ronaldo or Messi is MIA, like Cristiano is at the moment because of his suspension.

But the individual battle between the two best players in the world during the past six years is the most crucial factor in the fight for ascendancy.

If Messi can outdo his rival once more, it will ease the pain of losing the 2013 Ballon d’Or.

The Argentine genius has been off form, by his high standards, so far this season. He has scored just 11 times in the league, albeit partly because of injury.

But before Sunday night’s double against Sevilla, he only had one goal in nine La Liga fixtures, and that from the penalty spot against Valencia in a 3-2 defeat.

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Ronaldo is the division’s top scorer with 22 strikes but has not had the ideal start to 2014.

Four goals in five league games is not to be sniffed at, but it’s not quite matching his best form.

“I just hope that I can avoid any kind of injury; it's important to always be in form. Scoring more than 69 goals [in a year] will be difficult but I am prepared to have a go and try to do it," Ronaldo told Telefoot, as reported by Sportal.

“I am working hard to achieve it, we'll see but I think it can be done.”

Getting suspended for three games for his foolish scrap with Athletic Bilbao players isn’t going to help on that front.

And it doesn’t help Madrid either, who need the Portugal star to be at his best if they are to wrestle La Liga back from their bitter rivals.

Barca boss Martino was delighted that Messi's found his stride once more and believes it means his team is back on track.

He said, as per NDTV:

I always say the same with respect to Leo. I never run the risk of going over the top with him. Those that do say something negative about him sometimes don't realise what they are doing is affecting his pride and, when you do that to the best player in the world, this is what happens. To have the opportunity to recover and regain the lead just a week after losing it is reassuring. We start again now and we will see which of the three teams make a mistake first. We hope it won't be us again.

The key fixtures in the rest of La Liga’s schedule are Atletico v Real, Real v Barcelona and, on the final day of the season, Barcelona v Atletico.

Of those, it seems likely that El Clasico, at the Santiago Bernabeu, could be decisive.

If Barcelona are to take anything from that match, Messi is the man who can do it.

But if the teams are still level on points by the end of the season, it will come down to which side has the best goal difference. 

And that's where the individual battle between the two superstars could make the difference.

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