The struggles of Messi and Ronaldo could herald the end of their period of dominance

9th August 2022

Rarely in the upper echelon of football do we see longevity like that of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The turn of the millennium saw an uprise in sports science, technology and stats tracking, and when the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho and the original Brazilian Ronaldo looked past their best a new generation was ushered in. While we had seen sporadic glimpses of excellence out of Catalonia and Manchester respectively, the 2008-09 season proved to be a watershed moment in the beautiful game — ushering in the dawn of the Messi vs Ronaldo debate.

It’s safe to say this was the season that both players were genuinely world class. Yes, Messi had won the Champions League two years prior at Barcelona, albeit from a role that was slowly integrating him into the first team at the Camp Nou, and Ronaldo was competing for a third successive Premier League title having played a more integral role in capturing United’s second European title in Moscow the year before. It was a campaign that culminated in the first meeting between the two, as they met in Rome for the 2009 Champions League final.

Alex Ferguson’s side, the defending champions, were simply blown away by the panache of Pep Guardiola’s swashbuckling Barcelona, who retained possession and essentially rendered any of United’s attacks useless in a 2-0 win. Two years later, and with Ronaldo moving to La Liga rivals Real Madrid, Messi established himself as the best player in the world with a breath-taking display at Wembley, as United once again succumbed to Barca’s brilliance at Wembley.

It would take José Mourinho’s arrival at the Santiago Bernabéu to unearth Ronaldo in the Spanish capital after two seasons treading water. He and Messi would get the best out of each other despite the two sides’ bitter rivalry, and both went on to win the Ballon D’or on multiple occasions. Mourinho’s appointment certainly gave Madrid a fighting chance in betting football odds, putting an end to Guardiola’s dominance on Spanish borders with a league and cup double in 2012.

Both would again win the Champions League — Messi in 2015 while Ronaldo won four in five years with Los Blancos, completing La Decima before a hattrick of titles under Zidane. It’s unbelievable to think the duo still elicit fear in defenders almost 15 years later. However, last season was certainly a stumbling block, with Messi joining Paris Saint-Germain and Ronaldo returning to Old Trafford. The Argentina captain managed just 11 goals in all competitions while CR7 struggled to affect things in the Premier League second time around, as United wilted to a sixth-place finish.

The future of the duo seems jaded for certain. Messi has looked encouraging throughout preseason, and at 35 years old still has plenty to offer PSG, winning the Finalissima with Argentina before opening the scoring for the Parisians in a 4-0 route of Nantes in French football’s curtain-raiser, the Trophée des Champions. Ronaldo on the other hand has spent his summer trying to force a move from the inevitably of Erik ten Hag’s sinking United ship, with the 37-year-old looking at a possible reunion with boyhood club Sporting Lisbon, which would see him play Champions League football again.

The emergence of Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappé will continue to fuel the fire in the ongoing debate of when the torch is passed on. There is no question one of the Norwegian and French stars will be one of the best players in the world in the future, but only time will tell how much longer Messi and Ronaldo have at the top, and while there’s no definitive stamp on the day they finally fall off you wonder if we will ever see two players as perennially competitive for so long again in our lifetimes.