Cristiano Ronaldo has made his claim. Now he has to live up to it.
The Portugal forward will face Lionel Messi tomorrow for the first time since he declared himself “the best player in the history” of football after equaling the Argentine’s five Ballon d’Or awards this month.
Basking in the spotlight of a glitzy ceremony under the Eiffel Tower, Ronaldo felt confident enough to put himself at the pinnacle of the sport, ahead of Messi and other greats like Pele and Diego Maradona.
“You will go and say that I have a big head, but when you’re at the top, it’s normal that you’re criticised,” he told France Football. “I am the best player in history, in both good and bad times.”
Personalities aside, Ronaldo has a tough case to make. He and Messi both have four Champions League titles, but Messi’s eight Spanish league titles double Ronaldo’s tally for Real and Manchester United.
Messi also has the edge in their head-to-head duels. Messi has outscored Ronaldo 19-17 since Ronaldo joined Real in 2009. Prior to that, Messi scored in a 2-0 win over Ronaldo’s Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final.
The Barcelona-led Messi has also had a clear advantage over Ronaldo’s Madrid. Messi has helped Barcelona beat Ronaldo’s side 13 times, to eight wins for Madrid and seven draws.
Overall, Messi holds the “clasico” record with 24 goals in 36 matches. Ronaldo is one goal shy of matching Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano’s 18 goals against Barcelona.
The camera-shy Messi insisted again on Monday when he was recognised for leading the Spanish league in goals last campaign that he put more value on team titles than individual honours.
“Titles are our goal,” Messi said. “If individual statistics are there also, that’s even better, but they are not the objective.”
Ronaldo has no doubt closed the gap with Messi after he led Madrid to back-to-back Champions League titles in the last two seasons. But for Atletico Madrid striker Fernando Torres, this past decade is still set to bear Messi’s mark.
“If it wasn’t for [Ronaldo], Messi would have won twice as much,” Torres said. “What Ronaldo has done in the age of Messi says a lot about him.”
Ronaldo will need to be at his best at the Bernabeu on Saturday because anything other than a victory will deal a huge blow to Madrid’s title defence before the season reaches its midway point.
Real go into the match in fourth place and trailing Barcelona by 11 points with a match in hand. Atletico Madrid and Valencia are in second and third. “Given the situation we are in we are obligated to win,” Madrid defender Sergio Ramos said.
Messi had one of his most memorable performances at Madrid last season when he scored his second of two brilliant goals in stoppage time to silence the Santiago Bernabeu.
Madrid got revenge with wins of 3-1 and 2-0 in the Spanish Super Cup in August, when Barcelona was reeling from the departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain.
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde, however, quickly rallied his team and they have not lost since, a run of 24 matches. Neymar may have gone but Valverde has succeeded in tightening up Barcelona’s defence.