An epic showdown in the Champions League semifinal will pit the world's two greatest players against one another over an enticing two-game stretch. Much is at stake, the winning team will earn the right to represent Spain in the Champions League Final and the player on the winning team can also earn bragging rights and sway soccer enthusiasts opinions as to who the best player in the world today is.
This past Saturday April 16 saw Barcelona and Real Madrid play to a 1-1 draw in an "El Classico" showdown where, not surprisingly the goalscorers just so happened to be Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.A penalty apeice saw the two share the spoils and further build up the anticipation for the first leg of an all Spanish semifinal scheduled to be played on April 27.
The two players are regarded as the best of this generation and have attracted comparisons from the media, fans and analysts for the past couple of years. Both players have won the Champions League title, Messi with Barcelona and Ronaldo with Manchester United. Both have also deservedly won the Fifa World Player of the Year award (Messi has won it the past two consecutive years) And both are on pace for an unprecedented 50 goal seasons with Messi currently as of this writing just scored his 50th for the capaign and Ronaldo at 41.
These two players have already achieved so much in their still young careers, and by the looks of it, they show no signs of letting up either, but rather improving and getting better. Soccer has seen many stars from generation to generation, names like Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Platini and Zidane have often been regarded as the best players of their respective generation. Currently though, there has never been such tight competition and valid arguments for the best player on the planet like there is now, with Messi and Ronaldo. And at this pace, these two players will not only go down as the greatest players of this generation, but also,quite possibly as the best two players to have ever graced the professional soccer fields.
It's fascinating that in this day in age, with the elevated level of competition and athletic ability that has improved drastically since the time of the other great players mentioned; these two players still stand head and shoulder over everyone else. Over the past couple of seasons, they have averaged close to a goal a game; and previously unheard of feat.
The answer to who is the best player in the world however, can only be designated to one player. Lets take a closer look at these two phenomenon's to determine the answer to that question.
The two greatest players in the world share many similar attributes, one of them being pace and acceleration. Not only are these two of the fastest players on the planet and would definitely run the 100-metre sprint in under 11 seconds; but more importantly they are also just as fast with the ball at their feet, an extremely difficult skill to acquire. The pace at which they are able to dribble along with acceleration and sharp turn in direction to a side and a further drop of the shoulder used to as a faint; it is extremely difficult for defenders to anticipate their next move let alone stop their progress without having to blatantly foul them.
Ronaldo has a particularly fluid and aesthetic style of dribbling, where he utilizes his fast twitch muscle fibers (and he is loaded with them) and explosively runs with the ball and makes sharp cuts and turns all while seemingly running with his toes hitting the ground first; giving a visual demonstration of the term "twinkle toes". Messi on the other hand, seems to be the Master of the "Basics and Fundamentals" as he tends to keep his dribbling, turns and cuts rather simple.
But due to his low center of gravity, coupled with his athletic explosiveness as well as the fact that he dribbles with the ball so close to his feet almost as if it were attached to him with a piece of string; he is able to just as successfully get past defenders and easily beat the man covering him.
It is not uncommon to see players with great pace and acceleration,what is however uncommon and what makes these two players exceptionally unique is the fact that they are able to maintain absolute control of the ball while still maintaining top speed. Their ability to maintain awareness of both their surrounding teammates as well as the opposition players and focus on goal is truly remarkable. Soccer instincts can be developed but in this case, these two seem to be born with a rare and highly developed predatory inclination. Messi and Ronaldo were born to play and excel at this sport and they are making the most of their genetic gifts.
The top-two goalscorers in the world for the past three seasons has been either Ronaldo or Messi. They are currently on place to shatter the 50-goal mark, setting new career highs as well as FIFA records. Messi just finished securing 50-goals this year and with over 10 games remaining in the season is sure to close in on 60. He has already eclipsed the previous 47 goal mark that he and Ronaldo had set previously. Ronaldo in turn, despite missing several games due to injury, has an incredible 41 goals to date for the year.
One would expect the two best players in the world to score their fair share of goals, but what must be pointed out is the fact that neither of these two players started their respective careers as out and out strikers. Ronaldo was actually still playing a winger role when he scored 47 goals for Manchester United! He now plays more of a striker position on the field for Real Madrid, but still not as a center forward but rather as a supporting striker.
Messi's role is a hybrid of winger and striker; and he too is more of a supporting striker than a full out center forward (ala Drogba or Torres). He often times drops back very deep in midfield to pick up the ball and to help build up play. The diminutive forward usually plays on the right and likes to cut in sharply to the middle before he makes an attempt for goal or passes it off to one of his supporting cast members.
It would be a fair statement to say that Messi is somewhat predictable; the defenders all know his intentions are always the same, to cut in from the right and into the middle to shoot. And yet still they are unable to stop him, not even when they allocate several defenders on him at a time. Its an amazing sight to behold, as he cuts through the middle, blowing past defenders and at the same time opening up space for his teammates. He has become every defender's nightmare.
Over the next several seasons, both Ronaldo and Messi are contracted with their respective teams Real Madrid and Barcelona. Also, it appears that they are highly unlikely to be sold or traded to another team either. That being said, it would be prudent to look at the recent history of each team as well as the likeliness of their future success in order to determine which of these two teams would provide the better opportunities for their player to excel and win.
What we do know is that both Real Madrid and Barcelona have a rich history both domestically and abroad in Europe. Real Madrid in particular has historically performed exceptionally well in Europe's elite club competition, Champions League.They have the most Champions League's titles of any other club with 9, with their last win being in the 2001/2002 campaign with the combination of Zidane and Figo in the midfield and Raul and Morientes spearheading the attack.
Since that time though, a lot has changed and the balance of power has shifted significantly in favour of Barcelona. Recently they have won the Champions League tournament in the 2005/2006 season as well as the 2008/2009 season and were semi-finalists and lost to eventual champions Inter last year.
Coincidentally, the teams have been drawn against each other in both the Champions League Semi Final as well as the Copa Del Rey , which Madrid won 1-0 in extra time thanks to a none other than bullet Ronaldo header in extra time. And with Barcelona all but a lock to secure a third league title in row, the deciding factor would be the outcome of the champions league fixture. If Madrid are unable to progress to the final and lose out to their fierce rival, look for them to make further changes to their roster during the summer. While Barcelona, win or lose, will still keep its nucleus of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol intact; they have been very successful with these players before and look to be getting even better playing together as a team (if that's possible).
For these reasons, it must said that Barcelona have been a far better team than Real over the past several seasons, and even though the gap is closing in a since the arrival of Jose Mourinho, who seems to have them running in top form now, Barcelona still remain the bookies favourites and the team to beat in Europe and rightly so.
Since the bygone days of Maradona, Pele, Cruyff and Platini the game has evolved and changed. The game has become a lot more physical and a lot more demanding in terms of energy and fitness required from the players. All in all, the environment of the game has put a lot more emphasis on size, strength and power of the players rather than technique and pure skill. Players who are able to exhibit the attributes mentioned are often selected and preferred over players who possess skill and technique.
Taking this into consideration, it is plain to see who of the superstars possess these preferred physical attributes. Ronaldo is quite the specimen, he is 6'1", powerfully built and has an over-abundance of fast twitch muscle fibers making him both quick and explosive. He is an athlete in every sense and would have been good at playing almost any other sport that required running and agility. Never before has there been a player with Ronaldo's physical tools; that is, an incredible combination of speed, power and technical ability.
His stocky counterpart Messi, though he might not be nearly as physically imposing (listed generously as 5'7") is also infused with fast twitch muscle fibers and himself is extremely quick and explosive. In terms of physicality though and coming up against big defenders; Ronaldo is definitely more equipped to deal with them physically. However, Messi has not let his stature hinder him from making an impact or contribution; he is able to play hard and has never really been man handled and shut down physically by a defender. He's simply too quick and evasive for a defender to use size and strength to wear him down.
While Ronaldo uses intricate dribbling skills and lightning fast feints and dekes; Messi prefers to stick to more simple and basic moves. Both are able to consistently outfox their opponents but Ronaldo deserves honourable mention in this category again due to the fact that nobody else in the world is able to consistently pull off the high level of trickery at such an intense pace. Its almost as if he becomes a dizzying blur of aesthetic movement, leaving defenders scrambling to chase after him after they've been beaten.
The name Ronaldinho does come to mind when talking about trickery and skilled dribbling; but again, he was not able to perform such theatrics at Ronaldo’s pace and ultimately this lacking attribute proved to be his Kryptonite and shortened his time in the “spotlight” as both AC Milan and Barcelona opted to trade him due to his slowing body.
To determine which of these two great players is the best in the world, let us first define what is meant by the term "best" and how it applies to the sport. First off, I don't consider the best player in the world to necessarily be or mean the player with the highest level of skill or number of goals. No, the best player is determined first by the level of accomplishment; both individually and as part of a team, and secondly and probably most importantly, the level of contribution a player makes towards the success of his team.
This is where Messi stands in a class of his own; he makes Barcelona tick so to speak. The Argentine improves the chances of his team winning every time he laces up his boots and he improves the play of his teammates as well. This is something that Ronaldo will probably never be able to do; that is become a thorough team player. The fact is, teammates are forced to adapt their game to suite his needs or to put it more bluntly, he is a rather selfish player.
This is evidenced by the fact that Ronaldo requires a lot of the ball, he takes almost all free kicks that are within scoring range, he often times chooses to shoot on goal when the much better option would be to pass off the ball to a teammate. Also, after Real Madrid has run up the score against a lesser opponent, he tries to almost force his name onto the score sheet as he desperately shoots from almost anywhere. And lastly, Ronaldo is often visibly absent from team celebrations after a goal is scored by one of his teammates, adding further evidence that he is more focused on his individual accomplishments rather than that of his team.
Now granted, Messi too requires a lot of ball possession and is has also been guilty of holding on to the ball far too long. But statistics would suggest that he is a much more complete "team player" than Ronaldo, as his number of assists are almost double that of Ronaldo's over a three years span beginning in the 2007 campaign.
This is where the most significant distinction between these two phenomenon's appears to be. Simply put, Messi has a superior ability to play with and support his teammates. He is a more complete player and thus, a better one at that. Game in and game out, Messi proves he is a complete player due to his ability to continually make his teammates better and generally improve Barcelona's overall gameplay.
So there it is, Ronaldo is a phenomenal, exciting player. But Lionel Messi is just a step above and should be regarded as the world's best player.
The two superstars continue to make a strong claim for 'the world's best player title" as the season is quickly coming to an end, Ronaldo is gaining on Messi's goal totals and looks to have locked in the Pichichi title for Spain's La Liga scoring title after an astonishing 7 goals in two games. He scored 4 goals against a strong Sevilla side as well as another hattrick against bottom dwellers Getafe, bringing his tally to 50 for the year in all competitions and now trailing Messi by only two. Ronaldo now leads the La Liga goalscoring charts with 36 goals, 5 ahead of Messi and double the next highest goalscorer Giuseppe Rossi!
The goalscoring rate of these two phenoms is clearly reaching unchartered territory and a new precedent's are being set. The margin lead they have over the the other goal leaders is absolutely extraordinary, as David Villa and Giuseppe Rossi (tied for third place for the pichichi) both have 18 goals.
Much of the talk and spotlight has definately been focused on Leo Messi; and that would be due to a combination of his impressive accolades and form as well as the impressive performances and success of his Barcelona team. Ronaldo in contrast has been quietly going about his business, scoring goals, playing well and making significant contributions for his Real Madrid team; albeit in games now that are meaningless. Now although his team has won the Copa Del Rey with a 1-0 win over Barcelona, it is considered the "poor man's La liga title" where the winner is given little recognition due to the unimportant title status. Teams are much more focused on the revenue and media generating La Liga championship and the Champions League. Unfortunately for Ronaldo, his team has been eliminated from both competitions, whereas Barcelona are poised to win the league and play in the Champions League final; just another a catalyst for showcasing Messi's talent on the world stage.
Whether or not Ronado is able to forge ahead of Messi in total goals scored is of little importance now when determing who the best player/performer has been for the year; at least in the eyes of the governing bodies awarding the title (UEFA and FIFA). Should Barcelona win the Champions League for the second time in three years, it will all but cement Messi winning yet another World Player Of The Year award. In addition to the champions league, Messi will also be participating in the Copa America tournament this summer for Argentina. And again,should Argentina progress to the later stages of that tournament , with Messi having a contributing role; he will undoubtedly further his cause and settle any remaining debates as to who is better between Ronaldo and himself.
The two superstars ended their season's in spectacular fashion, both ending up with 53 total goals in all competitions. From a goalscoring point of view Ronaldo, ended his La Liga season on an absolute tear; scoring an incredible 11 goals in his last four games becoming the first and only La Liga player to score 40 goals in a season. Ronaldo, eclipsed the previous La Liga record of 38 goals held by Telmo Zarra and Hugo Sanchez.
Messi brought his goal tally to 53 in on the world stage as he scored the game winning goal in the Champions League final against Manchester United. The goal was just the icing on the cake of what was one of the best individual seasons from a player in the sports history. Messi won the league title, the champions league title; was the top goalscorer in the tournament and tied with the most ever goals in a Campions league season with 12, had the most assists in La Liga with 18.
When comparing the stats between the two, there is not a lot between them. However, it must be pointed out that Ronaldo's 11 goals in four games came against teams who had nothing to play for; where the team's season were all ultimately decided. Messi missed the final two games of the Liga season as he was rested for the champions league final where he produced in the most important game of the season. This is what ultimately sets Messi apart from every other player; he cannot be shutdown, not by any player and not by any defence. He makes significant contributions against the top teams in the most important games. Whereas Ronaldo, has at times struggled against the "big" teams and has often failed to show up in the important matches.
In terms of importance and value, Messi's Champions League game winning goal represents far more than the total 11 goals Ronaldo scored in the span of weeks.
Lastly, Messi has been the topic of converstation in recent interviews Pele has given. The interviews featured Pele making several statements as to why he should still be considered the best player in the sports history, citing his three world cup titles to Messi's none. Clearly, the Brazilian's jealousy is a significant indication that his "best player" title is being threatened by Messi. And at only 23 years of age, with three champions league titles, five La Liga titles and many years of soccer ahead of him, it could be a matter of time before the Argentine becomes recognized as the greatest player to have ever played the sport.