opinions | 2016-12-23
Beyond stats and stunts - The gulf between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo widened in 2016
The greatest footballer of all time and the one took the plaudits for his teammates performances
A few days after Cristiano Ronaldo was awarded the 2016 Ballon d'Or, Lionel Messi showed the world exactly why he continues to be the world's best footballer and isn't leaving his throne anytime soon. Both players played on the same day, albeit in different competitions, since Real Madrid were playing earlier in the day against the Japanese club, Kashima Antlers, in the FIFA Club World Cup final in Yokohama. Coincidentally enough, both Messi and Ronaldo's performances in their respective matches were accurate representations of how the past year in football went for them.
Real Madrid had a hard time playing against Kashima, who are currently sitting in 11th place in the Japanese League, first going behind 2-1 before Ronaldo equalized from a questionable penalty decision to take the match into extra-time. He played poorly throughout the 90 minutes, giving away possession many times, failing to beat his man repeatedly, and missing chances from close range. He then went on to score another two goals against a tired Kashima in extra-time and took the plaudits for the win. Benzema had a much better performance throughout the match and was giving Kashima trouble every time he was on the ball whether it was dribbling, incisive passing, or shooting from dangerous areas. In spite of Benzema's efforts, Ronaldo was awarded man of the match for his hattrick.
This was very reminiscent of his performance in the Champions League final where he was anonymous for all 120 minutes against Atletico, only appearing to score the last penalty in the shootout. Ronaldo scored 11 goals in the group stages against Shakhtar and Malmo, but failed to register a goal in both matches against PSG and Manchester City. His best performance of the tournament was when he scored a hat trick against an 8th placed Wolfsburg at the Bernabeu and helped Real Madrid advance to the semifinals of the competition. He was then credited with having won the Champions League for Real Madrid because he scored the final penalty of the shootout despite his teammates Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Pepe outperforming him in the semifinals and in the final, and without delivering a single good performance against any of the few top sides that Madrid faced throughout the tournament.
A similar pattern was followed when Portugal won the Euro this summer. Ronaldo was anonymous in Portugal's first two matches against Iceland and Austria, even failing to convert a decisive penalty against the latter, which could have awarded Portugal three points that night. Rui Patricio, André Gomes, Nani, Raphaël Guerreiro and Pepe were very crucial for Portugal and helped secure a point in each of these matches. Ronaldo's best performance of the tournament came in the final match of the group stages when he scored a brace against Hungarian goalkeeper, Gábor Király, the 40 year old who was known during the tournament for wearing sweatpants, and helped Portugal secure third place, which allowed them to advance to the knockout stages without winning a single match in the group.
Later in the tournament, he went missing in the knockout matches against Croatia and Poland, with his best moment across both matches being a missed clear cut chance against the former and then Quaresma scoring the game winning goal from the rebound in order to save his blushes. They could’ve lost that match in normal time if it wasn’t for Pepe and Patricio’s heroics. He was marginally better in the semifinal match against Wales, but it wasn’t at the level of his performance against Hungary. Bar his header goal from a corner and a scuffed shot from 20 yards out that Nani tapped in for a goal, there wasn’t much else to note about his performance. Joe Ledley, the Welsh midfielder from Crystal Palace, commented about Cristiano's performance after the match:
"They were two crappy goals. Ronaldo's shot was useless. Normally he hits them from there but he scuffled the cross for a tap-in. With the header, the guy can leap, but apart from that he didn't really do anything in the game."
In the final against France, he only played 25 minutes before coming off with an injury, and then Portugal went on to win the match with a goal from Eder in extra-time. Ronaldo was praised after the match for having coached Portugal in the final because of his antics on the touchline. Other football figures, like Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, disagreed with the praise that Ronaldo was receiving and stated:
"Cristiano Ronaldo didn't help in any way by doing that in the final few minutes of the Euros final… There were 11 players on the pitch doing their job, and the person in charge of directing them was the coach… I saw it as an overload of emotion from someone who saw that the team was just minutes away from achieving something everyone wanted."
Nani scored three goals and assisted one in the Euros, which were the same stats as Cristiano, but the man from Madeira received all the critical acclaim. One of Nani’s goals was against Iceland, and without that point, Portugal would not have qualified for the knockout rounds. In spite of the greater contributions of players like Pepe, Nani and Rui Patricio throughout the entire tournament, Ronaldo was credited as the man who led Portugal to Euro glory.
On the other side of the globe, Barcelona played what was their best football of the season in a 4-1 win against Espanyol in the Catalan derby, with Messi dominating the match and pulling all of the strings. In the build up to Suarez's' second goal of the match, Messi collected a pass 25 yards out from goal before going on an explosive run and weaving through five Espanyol players and letting off a powerful shot which was saved, and Suarez was right there ready to pounce on the rebound for an easy goal to put his team up by two goals. Only a minute later, Messi was in a very similar situation, but with the ball even further from the opposition goal, and after a quick burst of speed, he dribbled past four Espanyol players and was tripped, causing him to lose balance. Fortunately, the ball fell right into the path of Jordi Alba, who put it into the goal to make the score 3-0.
In the last minute of regulation time, Messi collected a pass roughly past the halfway line after a great pass from Sergi Roberto, dribbled until just outside of the 18 yard box before combining a one-two pass with Suarez, and then nutmegged the goalkeeper to make it 4-1 for Barcelona at full time. Messi wasn't awarded any assists for both the second and third Barcelona goals despite doing all of the work leading up to them. Suarez registered two goals and an assist, but Messi was the one who stole the show with his magical performance. Leo was a menace to Espanyol every time he got on the ball and showcased all of the abilities he has to his game; twisting defenders with his dribbling, creating chances for his forwards, recovering balls, dropping into midfield to assist in dictating the tempo of the game, cutting defenses open with his passes, and his goalscoring prowess. This year's version of Lionel Messi is far and away the best and most complete footballer in the world, and if that weren't enough, he's added another world class year to his CV to help cement his argument as the greatest of all time.
In 2016, Leo won the domestic double with Barcelona and helped lead Argentina to a third consecutive international final, making it one of his most successful calendar years to date. He was the world's top scorer for the year of 2016 with 59 goals and tops assists charts for this year with 34, and he also tops the list for most dribbles and most chances created. Messi isn't a player that can be understood simply by looking at his stats, since there are many things that he does which don’t show up in stats.
For instance, many times this year we've seen Leo receive the ball on the right side of pitch or in midfield and he picks out a perfect pass on the left to a player running into the box, like Jordi Alba, who then has the simple task of passing the ball across the box to one of Barcelona's attackers for a simple tap in. Despite Messi's vision and great passing ability unlocking the entire defense and creating 50% of the goal in these situations, these "pre-assists" aren't recorded in stats. Messi has adapted his playing style this year in order to help bring out the best in the players around him, like Luis Suarez, who pipped Leo to the Golden Boot award this season due largely to the incredible amount of chances that Messi creates for him. He also has been dropping into midfield more often this year in order to assist Busquets and Iniesta with dictating play.
Leo also had another big game performance in a final this year when he assisted twice against Sevilla in the Spanish Cup final to ensure that Barcelona sealed their domestic double. Barcelona went down to 10 men early in the match once Mascherano was sent off, and Messi turned up big time after that, constantly running at Sevilla's defense and causing all sorts of problems. He completed seven take-ons in that match; more than the entire Sevilla team did combined. On top of finals performances, Messi has also dazzled the world with his performances week in, week out in both La Liga on where they remain favorites and the Champions League this year. He recently showed us just how good he is a few weeks ago when he single handedly turned around the game at the Pizjuan with a goal and an assist after Barcelona were being drastically outplayed by Sampaoli's Sevilla side.
Leo also managed to score three goals in two legs against Arsenal in the Champions League before Barcelona were eliminated by Atletico Madrid in the quarterfinals, where he didn’t play to his best as Atletico minimized his influence on the game very well. He continued his successful run in the Champions League this season as well, and netted four against Manchester City in two matches, as well as opening the scoring in every match that he played in the group stages. Messi's goals always carry a lot of importance: 46% of Messi’s 59 goals this calendar year were scored when Barcelona were trailing or drawing a game.
Messi also had a fantastic tournament this summer at Copa America despite missing out on the trophy in the final. He was involved in four out of Argentina's 10 goals in the group stages even though he only played 135 minutes. He was then involved in six out of Argentina's 8 goals in the quarterfinal and semifinal of the tournament, and was clearly the best player for Argentina on the pitch in the final against Chile. Messi missing the penalty in the shootout was the only things that made the headlines after the final. Although it must be said that a player of his caliber should be scoring those penalties, his penalty miss did not affect the score as it stayed 0-0 after Messi’s miss. Biglia’s penalty miss was the one which lost Argentina their 2nd successive Copa America. People completely forgot about Leo's performances throughout the tournament and how well he had played in the final during regulation and extra time. The penalty miss was the only blemish on a near perfect year for Messi, but it also seems to be the only thing that most people remember about his year. On the other hand, most people have already overlooked the fact that Ronaldo's penalty against Málaga ensured that Barcelona won La Liga.
Regardless of who wins the Ballon d'Or, Messi continues to set the benchmark for what the best footballer in the world looks like. In fact, since Messi had his first breakout season in 2005/06, the winner of the Champions League has either been Barcelona or the team that defeated Barcelona in the knockout rounds. The only exceptions to this rule are Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, both reached the final of the competition when they defeated Barcelona. This is most likely why Jose Mourinho says that his favorite Champions League win wasn't his first one with Porto, but rather his second one with Inter because he beat Messi, so it makes him that much prouder. Real Madrid have also been suffering from the reign that this little man has on football, so much so, that they've only won one out the last eight editions of La Liga, even though they've assembled the most expensive and, arguably, the greatest Real Madrid team of all time.
There's a massive gulf in difference of quality between Messi and the newly crowned Ballon d'Or winner: Leo makes everybody else around him play better and is always involved throughout the 90 minutes, whereas the latter tends to hide throughout most matches, only to end up scoring and taking the credit for the efforts of his teammates. It's a shame we live in an era where everyone wants to compare players based on stats rather than judge based on what they do on the pitch and the level of influence that they exert over their team, especially when things gets tough. There's a glimmer of hope for this future generation though, because on the week that Ronaldo won the Ballon d'Or and on the same day that Ronaldo scored a hattrick in a final, the entire world was talking about Lionel Messi and correctly labeling him as what he was all along: the greatest footballer on the planet.
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WRITTEN BY: Juan Torres
Juan has been a fan of the club since the Rivaldo days. He has a passion for discussing football related topics, and anything that has to do with Barcelona. He's a certified 'D' Level Youth Coach and a certified referee.