Gerard Pique was absolutely right when he said that this Clasico means more to Barcelona, given the six-point deficit they must make up to Real Madrid at the top of the table.
In the personal head-to-head between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, a defeat for the former would not mean a great deal, either.
That’s because, with two weeks to go until the winner is crowned, Ronaldo’s name is already on the Ballon d’Or trophy. Even worse for Messi aficionados – and for those who wrote off Ronaldo as a spent force just weeks ago – the 2017 prize is within his grasp, too.
Speaking after his hat-trick dispatched Atletico Madrid and made him the leading goalscorer in the history of the Madrid derby, Ronaldo was in bullish mood over his chances of winning football’s top individual award for the fourth time – a triumph that would take him to within one of his Argentine nemesis.
“I’ve done everything for this season,” he told Telefoot. “We won the Champions League, I won the Euros with Portugal.
“The vote doesn’t depend on me and I don’t want to be obsessed with it. But if you ask me if I want to win the Ballon d’Or, I’d say yes.”
2 – Players with most shots on target this season (all comps):
LIONEL MESSI 33 (19 goals).
CRISTIANO RONALDO 33 (12 goals).
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) November 27, 2016
Zinedine Zidane said Ronaldo’s treble that night at the Vicente Calderon “closed the debate” but, truth be told, there has been little to argue about.
The Ballon d’Or’s liberation from the joint venture between France Football and FIFA might have reduced the risk of political jousting or popularity contests when it comes to voting for the world’s finest, but the 2016 and 2017 editions will still look wearily familiar.
That is, of course, no slight on Ronaldo. A total of 51 goals in 48 games last season – including the winner in the last Clasico in April – was a remarkable return even by his celestial standards. More importantly, the silverware followed: a second Champions League trophy in three seasons preceded that shock Portugal triumph, which ended their wait for a major trophy and forced the 31-year-old to admit that he may never experience a sporting joy quite like it again – even if he plays, as he promises, into his 40s.
Messi’s second domestic double in two years will justifiably keep him a firm favourite in the minds of the deciding jury, but yet another final disappointment with Argentina will count against him. He hasn’t done enough to stop Ronaldo winning this year and he doesn’t look likely to deny him in 2017. The Ballon d’Or imbalance between the game’s most illustrious pair is poised to be redressed.
That ‘Messidependencia’ is still bandied around the Madrid press is testament to his pervading brilliance, but Messi’s goals this season have been highlights of a frustrating campaign. Defeat on Saturday could put them out of the title race altogether, and they look too fragile in midfield and defence at present to merit any conviction that they will conquer Europe.
Should Messi miss out on club supremacy, he will not have a shot at redemption with Argentina next year. Indeed, the international calendar in 2017 will only strengthen Ronaldo’s cause. The showpiece event – the Confederations Cup – will give him a strong chance of a second trophy in two years with Portugal, with Chile and Germany their only realistic contenders. A conquest of LaLiga, the Champions League and then those finals in Russia would give Ronaldo an insuperable edge – especially given his new role as a penalty-box poacher.
— Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 30, 2016
Portugal coach Fernando Santos deserves credit for that. Shifting him into a central striker position at the Euros gave Ronaldo the liberty to plunder goals and reduce an increasing risk of muscle problems, while the team behind him constructed the formidable defensive platform on which their triumph was built. Zidane has opted for a similar approach, the most successful incarnation of which came in the derby, as Ronaldo led the line ahead of number 10 Isco to devastating effect.
In such a position, Ronaldo’s chances of scoring those unforgettable match-winners – regardless of his all-round contribution to the team – will only increase. Since Zidane took charge, Ronaldo’s 38 goals in 39 games have won 22 points for Madrid, in addition to those netted in knockout matches. In the same period, Messi has scored 45 times in 47 appearances, but those goals have rescued only 18 points. With eight goals in four league games, this points average is swinging further into Ronaldo’s favour.
And while Messi’s transition into a playmaker has drawn deserved admiration, the Ballon d’Or has rarely been granted to that kind of player ahead of the ones whose primary job is to stick the ball in the net. Wesley Sneijder’s scandalous omission from the final three nominees in 2010, when Messi won his second trophy, is testament to that.
The Ballon d’Or duopoly is nearer its end than its beginning, but if Messi cannot stop Ronaldo now or next year, nobody else will. Madrid will still be title favourites if they lose on Saturday, and their star man will claim back his individual crown whether or not Messi steals the Camp Nou limelight. Madeira’s finest export, it seems, can have his cake and eat it.
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