This is a guest post by La Liga expert Donald Wine II. He is the author of the blog “Life In 1-1-8,” which can be found here.
Better than Bird vs. Magic?
If you haven’t been watching La Liga football this season, you are missing probably the greatest battle soccer has seen in years.
I’m not talking about the disastrous El Clásico from the eyes of my beloved Real Madrid against Barcelona. No, I’m talking about the battle for El Pichichi (top goal scorer). The race between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the top goal scorer in La Liga has reached absurd levels, with both on pace to shatter every single season goal scoring league record that exists.
While players like David Villa, Gonzalo Higuaín, Roberto Soldado, Fernando Llorente, Sergio Agüero, and Luis Fabiano have scored plenty of goals for their squads the past couple seasons, Messi and Ronaldo have found themselves once again in a two-horse race for El Pichich.
Last year, Higuaín actually squeaked by Ronaldo for the #2 spot with 27 goals to Ronaldo’s 26, but Messi overtook all by tying the record for most goals scored in a La Liga season, 34, set by the original Ronaldo for Barca back in 1996-1997.
This year, Higuaín was keeping pace with CR7 and Messi until he suffered a back injury that will keep him out of the lineup until February at the earliest. The rest of the pack just hasn’t been able to keep up with the pizzazz, the panache of Ronaldo and Messi.
This season’s El Clásico is just three weeks away on October 10th 2011. It will be televised in the States on ESPN Deportes with coverage beginning at 10:30 AM PT.
In the past 2 years, while Messi has steadily risen from great player to otherworldly status, he arguably saved his best season performance for last season, when CR7 entered La Liga.
Ronaldo, already viewed as an otherworldly player that is on everyone’s short list of best in the world, looked to stake his claim as La Liga’s top player, and despite an ankle injury that kept him out several matches last season and limited him in several others, has really adapted well to the Spanish game.
Anyone can tell that the competition suits both of them, as each goal they score seems to have an “anything you can do, I can do better” air about it. When Messi gets 2 goals in one game, Ronaldo seems to come up with 2 goals. When Ronaldo gets a hat trick, Messi answers with one of his own. With 17 goals apiece through only 16 matches, they are greatly outpacing Messi’s run last year to 34 goals. As every week goes by and the goal totals of the two grow, you can’t help but realize that at this point, it’s not a matter of if, but when the single-season record will fall…and by which player’s lethal strike.
Both players disappointed on the world’s biggest stage, with Messi being shut out at this past summer’s World Cup and Ronaldo only notching one tally against lowly North Korea. However, what they lacked for some reason on the international stage they have seemingly found so far this season. They have sought to redeem themselves with their clubs, and in doing so, this season they have scored goals in impressive fashion. Ronaldo is Real Madrid’s go-to penalty taker, and while a few of his goals have come from the spot, he has wowed crowds with his artistry on free kicks. The best free kick specialist in the world today, Ronaldo has had some jaw-dropping benders hit the back of the net, fooling goalkeepers in the process. With his success, he has carried the swagger that fans love and critics love to hate. Messi, on the other hand, is a wizard in the open field, with several of his goals leaving even the biggest hater saying, “how did he do that?” He scores his goals like Michael Vick scores touchdowns, with a flair and an electricity that is matched by very few, if any, in the world.
So, who has the edge? Barcelona’s open attacking style fits Messi perfectly, and he will continue to thrive in that offense with Xavi meticulously passing him the ball. However, they have several great scoring options, and David Villa, Pedro, and Andrés Iniesta will also benefit from defenses trying to key in on stopping Messi. In Madrid, while Ronaldo has not scored many times from the run of play outside of some garbage goals, he is the main penalty taker for Madrid. He also has scored several goals from set pieces and though Madrid has brought it on the offensive end, most of the goals they have scored have gone through him. Ronaldo will see some goals filter to Higuaín as soon as he returns from his back injury, but since he crashes the net, Ronaldo will see several more opportunities to add to his scoring total.
As the calendar turns from 2010 to 2011, will Messi and C. Ronaldo keep up the pace? Will one surge, leaving the other behind to stare at the back of his jersey? With the competitiveness and the determination of both players, this is a race we may continue to watch until the last whistle of Jornada (Gameweek) 38. That’s fine by me…that will allow the fútbol fan in all of us to watch with excitement and amazement as these creative wizards of try to one-up each other with every ball they send humming past keepers all across Spain.
Note from the editor:
A few months ago we got this question from a TSG reader named Sean regarding the inseparable pairing of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
As it stands, there really isn’t a definitive answer for who the better player is. But one question that I haven’t seen addressed by anyone (and maybe it has been and I’ve just missed it) is how the two would perform if they switched teams. Would Ronaldo be as successful at Barca as he has been at Real and Man U? And if so, would it be a result of him adapting his style to the team, or the team adapting to him? Would Messi be able to fit in at Real, or would it be the rest of Real fitting around him?
I know it probably doesn’t get us any closer to an answer on which player is the greatest in the world, but it is a fun exercise nonetheless. (and for my money, Messi’s the better player, and would be more effective for Real than Ronaldo would be for Barca)
It’s an interesting exercise to see whether Ronaldo would fit in better with the Blaugrana than Messi would with Los Galácticos.
Would it be because they would adapt their style to the team or because the team would be shaped around them. There’s too many scenarios so let’s take the most basic one: switch the players and keep the rest of the current rosters.
My personal opinion: Ronaldo would fit in better with Barca’s current lineup than Messi with Real’s. Real would have to move di Maria to the left and out of his natural position, and Higuaín (and Benzema) aren’t strikers that can play back-to-the-net like Barca’s David Villa can. Real, by placing Messi in his natural right wing position, would need Xabi Alonso to play further up, leaving Lassana Diarra and Khedira to play the holding positions and leaving Ozil out of the lineup, with di Maria out of position.
On the other hand, Ronaldo can play in Messi’s vacated right wing spot (probably his more natural spot) and would thrive with Villa and Pedro on the other ends crashing the netas well as serving as the main penalty and free kick taker. He would also be the beneficiary of many Xavi passes that will set him up for scoring opportunities. While Messi may be the more electrifying player in the open field, Ronaldo would be able to move into Barca’s lineup without any modifications. Of course, that is a short answer for the debate and only briefly addresses one possible scenario for the two of them switching teams.
I’ll note in my commentary here that I’ve watched about six Barca games on the year and five Real Madrid.
My short answer here…
Obviously both teams cater to their stars. Whereas Barca has a near perfect pairing of Xavi playing the Russell Westbrook to Messi’s Kevin Durant, a system that has been cultivated years ago when Messi was plucked to play in the Barca academy, it took the power of the Special One to mold the team correctly around Ronaldo.
That said, I think Messi would be the more successful of the two however his all around game would be used more to set up the likes of Benzema and Higuain. I would expect him to have slightly less goals and more assists.
As for Ronaldo, I think his dominant game–he really comes at defenders with bold strength and skill–would take quite awhile to mesh with the fluidity of the Barca game. Ronaldo would be severely challenged to fit in and excel in Guardiola’s system.
It’s not an apt comparison perhaps, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a recent example of player that couldn’t adapt his game to excel at Camp Nou. I do give Ronaldo much more team ethos credit here–I remember his rat-tail and Sir Alex Ferguson pleasing days at United, but in a system that favors staccato two-touch passing and precise of the ball movement Ronaldo would struggle–just a little–to reach the heights that he is this season.