This week, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were supposed to play against one another for the 39th time, in a friendly between Al Nassr and Inter Miami. Ronaldo’s calf injury, though, means the showdown will not take place.
After 15 years of debate where even the “Why can’t we just appreciate both?” approach has become a little tiresome, perhaps what we should appreciate is the fact two all-time greats have already faced off so many times — Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer only met on the pitch four times.
Thankfully, largely by virtue of playing on opposite sides in Spain’s Clasico for nine years, Messi and Ronaldo have had an ongoing, and often enthralling, rivalry.
Here are the 10 most memorable encounters between them, chosen from the 38 times they’ve played each other.
10) Argentina 2-1 Portugal, Geneva, February 2011
The first of only two occasions when Messi and Ronaldo met at international level — and also the first time they both scored in the same game. And while this was a mere friendly, there was genuine excitement to witness Messi in an Argentina shirt up against Ronaldo in Portugal colours.
International friendlies can be dull, particularly those contested at a neutral venue, such as this one in Switzerland. But this was fiery, action-packed and high-tempo, with both sides playing more positive, attacking football than they might in a competitive setting.
There was inevitably a focus on the two stars, with Messi under close physical attention from destructive midfielder Raul Meireles, and Ronaldo having to cope with the more considered defending of Javier Zanetti.
The game’s first two goals showed the genius of both. First Messi dribbled inside from the right, past the attempts of Meireles to hack him down, and popped a brilliant pass in behind for Angel Di Maria to finish coolly. It was vintage (early) Messi.
Ronaldo equalised with a simpler goal, latching onto Hugo Almeida’s flick-on to fire home powerfully into the top of the net, before Messi, with 89 minutes and 50 seconds on the clock, calmly rolled in a winning penalty. The Argentine celebrations showed that the victory meant more than you’d normally expect for a friendly.
9) Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid, Camp Nou, April 2016
Away victories in Clasicos somehow mean more, and this one felt particularly significant for Real, who had been thrashed 4-0 in the reverse fixture at the Bernabeu four months earlier, which effectively led to the dismissal of manager Rafa Benitez, amid controversy about him omitting Casemiro under pressure from the club’s hierarchy.
Benitez’s replacement Zinedine Zidane almost never left Casemiro out, and Real played with much more balance and cohesion here. Gerard Pique headed the opener, Karim Benzema acrobatically equalised and then Sergio Ramos got dismissed. The visitors’ 10 men won the game with a truly special moment from Ronaldo — chesting down a deep Gareth Bale cross, under pressure, rather than attacking it with his head, and firing home from a tight angle.
It was an occasion where Ronaldo unquestionably outperformed Messi, on an emotional night at the Camp Nou — the evening began with credits to Barca icon Cruyff, who had died a week earlier at the age of 68.
8) Real Madrid 3-4 Barcelona, Bernabeu, March 2014
Seven goals overall, four from these two combined, and probably the most entertaining game they’ve ever featured in together.
So why is not higher up the list than eighth? Three reasons. First, the game was about more than these two — Di Maria was the man of the match, even if he finished on the losing side. Second, three of their four combined goals were penalties. And third, while Barcelona won the game, it was ultimately not decisive — this was the season Atletico Madrid pipped both sides to the title, the first time in a decade that anyone other than Barcelona or Real triumphed.
But still, what a game.
Andres Iniesta got things started early on, smashing in off the bar from Messi’s pass in behind, gesturing to the assister in his celebration. Benzema scored a quick brace, and from then on the goals came solely from the main men. Messi bundled his way through for an equaliser. Then came a Ronaldo penalty to make it 3-2, a customary Ramos red card, before two penalties from Messi. That sealed his hat-trick, and meant he became the all-time top goalscorer in Clasicos, ahead of Alfredo Di Stefano.
7) Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid, Camp Nou, November 2010
Arguably the landmark result of the Messi vs Ronaldo era featured no goals by either player.
They were, at this point, in very different situations.
Barcelona were clearly the best side around and Messi was now established in his central position. Having played only sporadically as a false nine in his first season under Pep Guardiola, and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s presence compromising the side’s fluidity in his second, now Barca were unashamedly based around the Argentinian.
Although he didn’t score, he played two near-identical through balls for David Villa goals. Real had absolutely no idea how to handle his deep positioning, with the centre-backs getting dragged all over the place.
Ronaldo, on the other hand, had been moved away from his favoured left-sided because he was a concern defensively. With Real coach Jose Mourinho worried about the runs of Daniel Alves, this was a very rare game where Ronaldo was initially fielded from the right, rather than the left or through the middle. Interestingly, Barcelona’s centre-back duo switched around accordingly, as Guardiola wanted Carles Puyol rather than Pique up against him.
For all the focus on goalscoring records, this game was probably the best demonstration of what Messi had over Ronaldo — the creative skills from deep and the ability to feed through balls in behind for runners. Despite not scoring himself in this one, he was still hugely influential.
6) Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid, Camp Nou, October 2012
There was a period when it felt like individual battles in football were being hyped up beyond what should be considered reasonable for a team sport.
The previous year, there was a Portugal vs Sweden play-off for European Championship qualification that was billed as Ronaldo versus Ibrahimovic, as if the other 20 players on the pitch were mere bystanders. And then, on aggregate, Ibrahimovic scored two, Ronaldo scored four, and Portugal qualified for the finals by winning 4-2. The hype was justified.
Similarly, this battle was when Barcelona versus Real Madrid became Messi versus Ronaldo.
The sides had less identity than in the previous couple of seasons. Guardiola, exhausted after four years in charge, had left in the summer. Mourinho, having beaten Guardiola to the previous season’s title, was about to lose the Real dressing room. Spanish football had peaked, with German football on the rise — and set to provide both this season’s Champions League finalists.
But La Liga still had Messi and Ronaldo, and at this point their goalscoring records were absurd. Ronaldo had managed 160 from 155 games since joining Real. In the same period, Messi got 169. You sometimes saw goal-a-game records in a single season, but scoring above that rate in three straight seasons was unheard of.
In a curiously flat encounter after so many fiery ones, Ronaldo squeezed in a near-post shot to become the first player to score in six straight Clasicos. Messi equalised, then put Barcelona ahead with a 25-yard free kick, an area where Ronaldo once specialised but where his rival was increasingly proving more reliable. Ronaldo squared it up at the end, typically running through onto a Mesut Ozil pass to finish.
Unusually, there were no major controversies, the result was generally acknowledged as fair, and the only talk was of Messi and Ronaldo reaching unprecedented heights. “Saying who is the best in the world at the moment should be banned,” said Mourinho afterwards. “Because these two are both such fantastic players.”
5) Real Madrid 2-3 Barcelona, Bernabeu, April 2017
From an early stage, the caricatures of Messi and Ronaldo were set. Messi was cast as a shy, humble, selfless team player who always looked a little scruffy. Ronaldo was cast as the showman, the flash trickster who cared more about individual attention.
There has probably always been more overlap between their personalities than those interpretations would suggest, though, and the ending to this game showed that.
The match itself was eventful. Casemiro opened the scoring and then Messi equalised in typical fashion, dropping deep to prompt a quick passing sequence before sprinting into the box and firing home. Ivan Rakitic scored a stunner. James Rodriguez made it 2-2. Ramos got yet another red card.
Then Messi scored another of his trademark goals, meeting a Jordi Alba cutback with a brilliant, curled effort inside the near post. And then came his moment of showmanship, taking off his shirt and raising the ‘Messi 10’ to the Real fans, before — and indeed after — his team-mates came to mob him.
It felt unusual for Messi, but demonstrated how much he cared about his individual standing, especially in games where he was up against Ronaldo.
4) Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid, Camp Nou, April 2012
After just two seasons of the Guardiola versus Mourinho rivalry, this was, incredibly, the 11th game between them. The first had been the aforementioned 5-0 humiliation for Mourinho at the Camp Nou, and the subsequent matches were, in general about him playing cautiously and desperately adjusting his side to nullify Barcelona’s strengths.
But now Real were the better side, en route to the title and desperate to defeat Barca for the first time that season, at the sixth time of asking. Mourinho played his strongest XI: Ozil as the No 10, Benzema leading the line, and Ronaldo racing inside off the left flank.
Ronaldo effectively sealed the title by running onto a through ball from Ozil, with whom he had a fantastic footballing relationship, shifting the ball slightly past the advancing Victor Valdes and finishing from a tight angle. He then gestured for ‘calm’ while his team-mates celebrated in front of the dismayed home fans. Real were all but champions.
3) Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona, Bernabeu, April 2011
This game featured the most famous goal of their personal rivalry — Messi’s genius dribble through the Real defence, and his clever right-footed finish. But this was an ugly encounter, at a time when tensions between the sides ran higher than ever.
Real’s response to Messi’s brilliance as the false nine was, essentially, to field a false defender. Pepe was an ultra-physical, rampaging midfielder during these Clasicos, used initially in a holding role and then as a box-to-box player. His aggressive tackle on Alves brought a red card just after the hour, and Barcelona took the initiative in a previously tight game.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Messi also opened the scoring with a close-range poacher’s effort — he was, in this period, fully capable of being a true No 9 as well as a false one.
The second goal needs minimal introduction, but it’s worth looking at how open Real were between the lines. Their starting shape was a compact 4-1-4-1, but after Pepe’s dismissal it almost looked like a 4-0-4-1.
You can’t give Messi that much space. He showed why.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 27, 2020
2) Real Madrid 1-0 Barcelona (after extra time), Mestalla, April 2011
Just six months after Real suffered a humiliation at the Camp Nou, and one week before the game that sits third on this list, they defeated Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.
The significance here was tactical. We’d been introduced to Messi and Ronaldo as right-wingers. Messi had since become established as a false nine, from where he could exert greater influence upon the game. Ronaldo had become a versatile all-rounder at Manchester United, but upon his move to Real became a fixture in an advanced left-sided role, cutting inside and shooting.
But on this night in Valencia, Mourinho’s determination to subdue Barca right-back Alves meant he switched Di Maria to the left. Adriano, at left-back, wasn’t such an attacking threat, so Mourinho could afford to use Ozil there. And because Mourinho thought he needed three deep midfielders to cope with Barca’s playmakers, he used Ronaldo as a centre-forward. Three traditional No 9s — Benzema, Gonzalo Higuain and Emmanuel Adebayor — were on the bench.
This meant that, albeit in very different ways, Messi and Ronaldo were spearheading their sides, leading the line.
Messi thought he’d created the opener with what would have been amongst his best-ever assists, collecting the ball in an inside-right position, dribbling laterally away from Pepe, Marcelo, Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Ramos, before feeding the ball in behind for a Pedro Rodriguez finish. It was genius. It was also offside.
And therefore it was left to Ronaldo to provide the winner. Di Maria, in the left-wing position he rarely played at this stage, beat Alves and crossed for Ronaldo, towering above Javier Mascherano, Barca’s unusually short centre-back (a very different sort of converted midfielder), to power home a classic header.
The two moments encapsulated the technical and tactical differences between Messi and Ronaldo.
On paper, they were playing in the same position, centre-forward, but on the pitch they offered completely different qualities.
1) Barcelona 2-0 Manchester United, Stadio Olimpico, May 2009
Nearly 15 years ago, Messi and Ronaldo met for only the third time. Their previous two encounters had been relatively uneventful, in the previous season’s two-legged Champions League semi-final, a tie settled by a Paul Scholes thunderbolt.
At that point, both their reputations were still growing — they finished second and third respectively in the Ballon d’Or in 2007, behind Kaka. But it was difficult to imagine that their clashes would become such a major event, that their rivalry would dominate the next decade of European club football.
By 2009, Ronaldo was the Ballon d’Or holder and Messi was the pretender to his throne. It’s interesting, at this early stage, how much the build-up to that game — a rare European Cup final between quite obviously the best two sides in Europe — was dominated by their personal clash.
“The debate has been raging since the Champions League final was set,” wrote The New York Times’ Jere Longman, who also explained the difference between them at the time — both were great dribblers and increasingly prolific goalscorers, but Ronaldo was much bigger physically than Messi, and better in the air.
“They are two fantastic footballers, both with the ability and courage to attack defenders all the time,” United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said when asked about the comparison before the game. “No matter how many times they get tackled, they get up and want the ball. Physically, they are different, but at the end of the day, how can you divide them? It’s very difficult.”
That was a surprisingly diplomatic answer from Ferguson, although he knew Ronaldo would only be a United player for one more game.
And in that game, Messi came out on top.
Famously, he didn’t merely play the false-nine role he’d only featured in a couple of times that season (Ronaldo himself had been a surprise centre-forward in United’s run to the final the previous year), he also headed home the decisive second goal. It was only the third header he’d scored, one of 24 in his career until now.
Few would argue that Ronaldo, who has scored six times as many headers as Messi, is the more threatening aerial player. When it mattered most, though, Messi’s glorious off-balance header proved decisive in the biggest game in club football.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)
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