Before Sunday, the rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had been a media construct – a fabrication that helped create the kind of dramatic headlines that drive ratings and win page views. People who follow the game know this, but the debate — Ronaldo or Messi, Messie or Ronaldo — gave editors the justification. Even if they aren’t exactly Ali-Frazier, Magic-Bird rivals, their stature in world soccer makes discussion inevitable.
That discussion’s set for a new level after Sunday’s theatrics in Barcelona. The final score may say Barcelona and Real Madrid drew, 2-2, but the result everybody will be talking about is the battle of the stars: Lionel Messi 2, Cristiano Ronaldo 2.
It’s hard to believe in that in the 21 Clasicos since Ronaldo joined Real Madrid, this is the first time each icon’s scored twice in the same game. We were expecting matches like these when Real bought Ronaldo, but three years and 21 matches into the era, we finally have some perspective on how special and rare these games are going to be.
How often can they really happen? Even for Messi and Ronaldo, multi-goal games are uncommon, but for each to have one in the same Clasico? We shouldn’t have expected so much.
That’s what makes today’s match so amazing – both men with braces, in a Clasico, in a game where nobody else scored. It was just them, on their own, with complete responsibility for whatever their team was going to do. True, Karim Benzema and Pedro Rodríguez each found the woodwork, but when they didn’t it, it only reinforced the feeling: It was going to be Messi and Ronaldo or nobody for Spain’s Big Two.
But while Messi and Ronaldo may have dominated on the scoresheet, there were large stretches of play where neither mattered. For the first 30 minutes, Messi was practically shut out. Only a collapse from Real’s defense in the 31st minute brought him into the game, giving Messi a chance to pounce on a loose ball in Iker Casillas’s six-yard box. Before then, Barcelona couldn’t convert their dominance of possession into chances for their star.
And with that possession advantage, Ronaldo was left to collect dust on Real’s wing. Such is life in the Clasicos. When Barça holds the ball for 60, 65 percent of the time, all you can do is be patient and have faith. Wait for Sami Khedira or Xabi Alonso to win a ball, then burst. The rest of the time, Ronaldo stayed wide and on the left, forced to wait for whatever isolated chances Real could create.
Sunday, he only got two, but Ronaldo took them both. His first half opener came as Daniel Alves was drawn inside, allowing Karim Benzema to find him in the left of the penalty area. Later, Mesut Özil found him testing Barcelona’s trap. A left-footed blast on the first, a quick release on the second, and Ronaldo had his brace. Those were his only chances of the night.
Messi saw a lot more of the ball, but he had even fewer chances. The first goal came from chaos – pure luck and opportunism. The second was from a dead ball, Messi dipping a perfect ball behind the Real wall, into the right of Casillas’s goal from 24 yards out. Messi may have dictated play for the match’s final 35 minutes, but the scoring chances were still nearly impossible to find.
And while it may have been more fun to see each star get six, seven chances on goal, their efficiency somehow made the match more special. There was no hesitation, no waste. Each man had to convert the few chances he saw. After Ronaldo equalized in the 66th minute, you knew whoever got the next chance would win the match.
But it never came. The final chance fell to Pedro, who nailed the cross bar near full time.
Perhaps the draw only raises the stakes. The next time there’s a shootout (if there is a next time), both men will know. They’ll need to empty their chambers. If there’s going to be a winner, they’re going to have to take the shot.