Best of the best

Lionel Messi would appear to be the world number one footballer, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s recent form has reopened the debate, writes Kevin Beirne

The start of a new year is as good a time as any to ponder one of football’s burning questions: who is the best, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? In the wake of Messi’s recent acquisition of the first-ever FIFA Ballon d’Or, it would seem that he is the obvious choice. However, Ronaldo’s recent form brings the questions back into relevance.

For starters, since his arrival in Madrid, Ronaldo has had an incredible strike rate of 64 goals from 63 matches. Although much of this success has come against the weaker sides of the Spanish league, the winger’s ability to dominate any opponent he faces has seldom been seen before.

Before last weekend, Messi had scored 28 goals for his club this season and once again outshone Ronaldo in Barca’s 5-0 thrashing of Los Blancos. This was an astonishing display of consistency from such a young player.

Although their goal ratio is similar, most teams fear the sight of Messi on the opposing team sheet more than Ronaldo, because of Messi’s ability to consistently create as well as score goals. So far this season, Messi has thirteen assists to Ronaldo’s eight. It is clear that Messi remains the greater team player, although he is playing in a better team than Ronaldo, but great players handle pressure.

This brings us nicely to the definitive measure of excellence: the clutch. Once again, Messi comes off the winner in this one. Ronaldo is notorious for hiding in big games. He was almost a non-factor in Manchester United’s 2008 Champions League final victory over Chelsea, and even missed a penalty in the shoot-out. Ronaldo was also non-existent at the World Cup in the summer.

Although it is true that Messi has never scored against a José Mourinho team, he has still made plays. He had two assists in the most recent El Clásico. Another iconic big game in which we saw Messi take on Ronaldo was the 2009 Champions League final. Both men played the full 90 minutes, but Messi walked away with a goal, a gold medal and the man-of-the-match award, while Ronaldo had to be content with a losing medal and a yellow card.

But who knows what 2011 will bring for either player. With Messi only 23 and Ronaldo turning 26 in a couple of weeks, these players have seemingly yet to reach their peak. History suggests that both these giants of the game will improve even further – an exciting prospect for football fans. For now, we should just marvel at the magic of Messi and the craft of Ronaldo, a rivalry of magnificence the football world has never before seen.