There is no dispute. There is no battle to consider. Cristiano Ronaldo was a worthy winner of the Ballon d’Or but Lionel Messi is currently playing better football than any other player, ever.
“Lionel Messi is better than Ronaldo,” the former Barcelona star David Villa told Goal this week. “He is the best player in the world. Everything about him is the best.”
Earlier in 2015, Ronaldo’s performances were so stellar that Real Madrid Castilla coach and club legend Zinedine Zidane described him as being “an alien”. But barely six weeks later it is Messi who is the extraterrestrial.
The story of how Messi has ended up on top of the world ahead of this weekend’s decisive Clasico at Camp Nou begins in defeat; Real Sociedad on January 4. Barcelona had failed to take advantage of Real Madrid’s loss against Valencia earlier in the day and missed out on top spot in La Liga. It was a blight on what had been a solid, if unspectacular, season under Luis Enrique for the Catalans.
Real had decisively vanquished their rivals in their only previous meeting of the season back in October and momentum looked to be with them after a run of 22 successive victories. On a personal level, the momentum was with Cristiano too.
He was putting the finishing touches to his Ballon d’Or winner’s speech after unveiling a statue dedicated to himself in Madeira. Ronaldo had found the net 25 times in the league before that Valencia loss. Messi had only scored 15.
Messi’s standards dropped for the best part of 18 months while Ronaldo gobbled up the individual prizes. The Argentina captain played unhappily. He was unwilling or unable to do what Tata Martino asked of him. He did not cut the same figure as the player who demolished all in front of him for Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova. That sense of unease Messi brought with him spread like a virus among other players and lingered until that night in San Sebastian was over.
Messi was a substitute that evening, annoyed that coach Luis Enrique would not start him after a delayed return from his winter holidays. The next day he missed training. Reports of an upset tummy were easily dismissed. A wedge was driven between Messi and his coach. Luis Enrique gave nothing away though, insisting to the press that all was well. Untrue. Messi and a cadre of senior players were dissatisfied with the coach’s methods. The past few weeks, then, have been an exercise in crisis management at Camp Nou.
Messi and Luis Enrique are not singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to their accounts of what occurred around the time of the Sociedad defeat. Luis Enrique carried on as normal. Messi demurs when it suits him but has been forthcoming about changes which have taken place since the defeat at Anoeta.
“Luckily, after the match against Real Sociedad, where we didn’t start the year very well, everything changed,” the forward said in an interview with Mundo Leo. “Now there is a different dynamic to the team, everything we do comes off. The team has a lot of confidence and we’ve changed the attitude and drive. That’s why we’re playing like we are at the moment.
In other words, Luis Enrique has been left under no illusion about who the boss is at Barcelona. It might not be an ideal working scenario but Messi is playing the football of his life. Barcelona have since won every game bar one.
“This year I tried to get to my best form as quickly as possible,” he revealed. “I knew I was coming off the back of a not very good year, during which I went through a lot of problems on and off the field.”
There is that tax case, there was the deep disappointment of losing the World Cup final when he was expected to deliver, and he saw his friends in the Barca dressing room, namely Cesc Fabregas and Pinto, depart.
Messi has excelled in the circumstances and enjoys the full backing of his board and colleagues. It is Ronaldo who is snarling at his team-mates and walking off the field unappreciative of the thousands who come to catch a glimpse of him. Real Madrid’s ordinary form has given Ronaldo questions he will not, or cannot, answer.
Ronaldo has had a lot on his mind since winning the Ballon d’Or and conditions have not been ideal for him to maintain his performance levels. There has been a high-profile split with his partner and he had to deal with the fallout of his ill-conceived birthday party, but one thing will hurt above all else.
Messi, the man by whom Ronaldo defines his own output, is making a well-worn argument redundant. It was once Ronaldo and Messi vying for top spot and then the rest falling in line behind. Messi is now leaving Ronaldo in his wake.
“For me Messi is the best player ever,” former Madrid and Barca star Robert Prosinecki told Goal. “Chapeau to Ronaldo, but Messi is someone special. He’s an incredible player; it looks like you’re watching him on a Playstation. It’s impressive to see how he did it for many years, also Ronaldo, but Messi is better in my opinion.”
The only question now is whether or not Ronaldo can do anything to match his great rival. It is unlikely that Ronaldo will show either the aptitude or patience to keep up.
Look how Messi has evolved. He drops deep. He makes the play. He nominally occupies the right side of attack but the entire field is his domain. The nutmegs, the one-twos, the shimmies, the feints… the tricks are not only back but they are better than ever. He looks brand new.
“It was a challenge to change the image that I had given out last season and to be the player I had been in previous seasons again,” Messi said. “That was my objective and that’s how I came out at the start of this year – really up for it.”
How things change. It is true that Messi is no longer the same player who won four Ballons d’Or. He is better and so are Barca, suffering just one defeat – to Malaga – since the Anoeta loss. Real have been beaten four times and drawn twice. There are mitigating circumstances in the sense that Sergio Ramos, James Rodriguez and Luka Modric have all been injured. They have not been able to count on their favoured XI. In these times of difficulty, Cristiano has not been found.
He has scored only five league goals since that Valencia loss and that dissatisfaction with team-mates, the surliness in his dealings with the press, have all betrayed a fed-up figure.
Ronaldo cannot conjure the play for them like Modric or James. He is a goalscorer, first and foremost, stationed on the wing. The relentless consistency with which he found the net and the ease in dismissing any defender in his way ensured he was regarded as the best.
Real Madrid had won the Spanish, European and world titles before that day they lost to Valencia; they were brought crashing to earth before they went intergalactic. Since then Cristiano Ronaldo has been unable to emulate his intergalactico form from earlier in the season, and it is Messi who is playing like he is from another dimension.