Ronaldo, Messi continue impressive game of one-upmanship
MADRID — January is always prize-giving month in the elevated, exclusive society comprised of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. It’s when one of them picks up the Ballon D’Or as FIFA’s World Player of the Year, and the other finishes as runner-up. It’s when the rest of the sport tries to decipher, watching the gala ceremony, any signals in their relative body language of envy, or coldness, or shared respect.
Ronaldo, who won the award for the second year running, and beat the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 winner into second place, this year gave Messi an apparently affectionate tap on the thigh as they waited for last Monday’s announcement of the 2014 prize. The gesture seemed to suggest any coldness that used to exist between them has thawed. They have been so certain, for so long, of their superiority over others they can almost be seen as co-conspirators in a private game of dare. They would be forgiven for already viewing the 2015 Ballon D’Or as another straight duel nobody else will enter.
So here it goes again: On Sunday, Ronaldo scored twice in a 3-0 Real Madrid victory at Getafe. A few hours later, Messi scored three times in a 4-0 victory at Deportivo La Coruna.
Normal service resumed? The top of La Liga suggests it has been. Barcelona and Madrid’s comfortable away wins means they have both now gained more points they have dropped in 2015, the surprise being that they needed three games to get there. The setbacks they both suffered on the first weekend after the winter pause, Madrid’s loss at Valencia and Barca’s defeat at Real Sociedad, have been consigned to memory, although with certain lessons absorbed.
One of those lessons was absorbed by Barcelona’s head coach, Luis Enrique. Fallout from his decision to leave Messi out of the starting team against Real Sociedad has been heavy, and its effects will last at least as long as Barca trail the league leaders, Madrid, in the table – the gap is one point and Madrid have a game in hand – and while Messi keeps reminding his employers there is nobody more capable of influencing the fortunes of the club than he is.
Sunday’s was his 30th career hat-trick for Barca. It was not achieved against the most difficult defense he has known but it was still full of ingenuity. A header for his first goal; his second originated from his own pass over 25 yards, and finished with one of his feathery exhibitions of close control to guide it past the goalkeeper. Number three was a precise angled drive with his left foot.
These sorts of goals, all special in their construction and execution, carry the instantly recognizable stamp of Messi’s greatness. Another aspect of it lies in his ability to pick up form very quickly, to suddenly return to his confident groove after those rare spells where he seems to be in a dip, or to be grumpy. His opening goal against Deportivo was also his first in an away match for 106 days. By Messi’s standards, that’s a long time; by Messi’s standards, it almost counted as a case of travel-sickness requiring urgent medical treatment.
Messi ran Barcelona’s show in La Coruna in much the way he dominated the previous, far more demanding, Liga victory over Atletico Madrid. He has shone since the Real Sociedad mix-up. So far, in the 19-day-old reckoning for the 2015 Ballon D’Or, the challenger, Messi, ranks marginally ahead of the champion, Ronaldo, although the Portuguese did establish, with his double at Getafe, yet another landmark in history. He has now scored 89 times in away matches for Real Madrid in La Liga. Nobody other Madrid player has ever accumulated as many on the road.
For Ronaldo’s first goal, number 27 on his own account for this Liga season alone, he was indebted to a cross from Karim Benzema, after the France striker made a dazzling slalom around his marker while hugging the goal-line. The exquisite maneuver caught the attention of Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid head coach, more than Ronaldo’s goals.
Ancelotti embraced Benzema warmly for that contribution, and said: “That moment of skill from Karim was exceptional. It was key to our victory. Ronaldo and Gareth Bale provide the finishing for us, but our collective play is working very well.” Benzema gets regular praise from his coach. Ancelotti knows he tends to generate fewer headlines than his colleagues in the Madrid forward line, the others in the so-called ‘BBC’ – B for Bale, B for Benzema, C for Cristiano – but Benzema’s importance to Ancelotti’s idea of how Madrid are most effective is at least as high as Bale’s.
Benzema’s snaking run, footwork as deft as a trapeze artist on a high-wire, led to his eighth assist of the season in La Liga. Barcelona have only one provider as generous as that: and that is Messi, who is also their leading scorer. The outcome of the title race will not be down to just how influential Ronaldo and Messi are on each matchday from now on. It will also be about how consistent the inputs of Benzema or Barca’s Luis Suarez are; and of Bale or Barcelona’s Neymar.