Who is better? It’s the context in which nearly every meeting between these sides has been framed over the last eight years. Even when the sides aren’t playing, the seemingly eternal wrangling seemed set to continue.
Are you for Ronaldo? Or are you for Messi?
But it finally felt like the debate was beginning to run out of steam last week. Ronaldo had just scored the 100th – as well as 99th and 101st – Champions League goal of his career to earn Real Madrid a Champions League semi-final place at the expense of Bayern Munich. Messi, meanwhile, was as anonymous as he can be in his side’s lacklustre attempt to overturn a 3-0 first-leg reversal against Juventus.
Ronaldo was having airports named after him. Statues – however wonky – were being moulded in his image.
A heavily bearded Messi was beginning to look, and perhaps feel, his age – 30 in June.
Even in his side’s compelling Champions League comeback against Paris St Germain last month he had been reduced to something of a bit-part player. Team-mate Neymar took the plaudits for scoring twice and setting up the incredibly late, tie-winning goal.
Going into Sunday’s clash at the Bernabeu Stadium, Ronaldo and Real were in charge at the top of the La Liga table. Another win over Barcelona, or even a draw, would all but eliminate their rivals from the title equation. James Rodriguez’s equaliser for Real looked to have done just that after Messi had provided enough evidence to at least stir the debate over who’s better, him or Ronaldo, with his side’s opener.
Messi’s Portuguese rival helped tip the balance back in Messi’s favour by missing a golden opportunity to put his side back in front. But even so, it looked as if Ronaldo was going to end up having the happier night.
But Messi had other ideas. His first goal had all the elan we’ve come to expect. He managed to make a fool of Real Madrid defender Dani Carvajal, whose leg was still dangling in the air as the striker, gauze still stuffed in his mouth after a painful elbow in the face from Marcelo had drawn blood, whipped the ball past Keylor Navas.
His timely winner, however, had the effect of not just stoking the debate, but ending it once and for all.
“It’s time to enjoy the best player in the world and of all time,” said Luis Suarez, his strike partner, afterwards.
It wasn’t an outlandish goal in terms of quality. Far better were scored over the course of the same weekend – Nemanja Matic for Chelsea against Tottenham Hotspur in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley for example. Even Callum McGregor’s side-footed opener for Celtic in their win over Rangers on Sunday was comparable in its calm execution.
But neither of them is supported by such a body of work as Messi’s latest strike. After all, this decisive goal against Real Madrid was his 500th for Barcelona in all competitions. There’s great and there’s genius. He has scored 29 goals against Sevilla alone – and now 23 versus Real Madrid.
And no other goal scored over the weekend came in anything like the same context as Messi’s winner. The clock read 91.33 when Sergi Roberto took possession of the ball just outside his own area.
Messi would be the first to compliment his team-mate for the slaloming run that opened up the Real defence and led to Jordi Alba’s intelligent cut-back after Andre Gomes held the ball up briefly.
These willing helpers are all vital cogs in the well-oiled machine that is Barcelona. But who else other than Messi could have provided the inspiration, the anticipation, to make a sweeping run to the back of the box, as if guided by angels?
He wrapped his left foot around the ball and sent a perfectly-placed shot into the corner of the net with the last kick of the game.
Messi’s celebration was just as deft. There was barely a smile on his face as he raised his shirt to display his name to the crowd.
Not for him the slightly tacky pose, adopted by Ronaldo, naturally, along with a number of others, of standing with back to the crowd, legs splayed, while pointing to their name with outstretched thumbs.
No, a seemingly emotionless Messi just stood there in the lair of his side’s greatest rivals as if about to pin his shirt to an imaginary clothes line.
It wasn’t an aggressive act. Rather than a challenge, or even a boast, it seemed more like a reaffirmation.
This is the name of the best there’s ever been.