x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Messi conquered hearts and minds

Cristiano Ronaldo took time out from the Champions League final to settle a personal score.

Cristiano Ronaldo took time out from the Champions League final to settle a personal score. While Barcelona were hogging the real ball out on the pitch, he picked up a stray one and drove it carefully, beautifully, straight into Barca's dugout. It was typical of the man. In Rome on Wednesday night, there was a match within the match. It pitted Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi for the title of European Player of the Year 2009, or, more simply, best footballer on earth. Both had their moments, but both also exposed mental flaws.

As so often, Messi dribbled too much. One afternoon last year Barcelona's then manager, Frank Rijkaard, had sat in his cellar office and lamented: "I've seen matches where it looked as if for 90 minutes he was playing one against 11." Rijkaard said he was busy teaching Messi to dribble less, "not always make the same move, and next time just lay the ball off and move on". Those lessons were not evident in Rome. Rijkaard's successor, Pep Guardiola had pulled Messi back into midfield to spare him the battle with Manchester United's left-back Patrice Evra that the Argentine had lost last year.

Messi loves the ball so he embarked on a project to win the game flying solo. But United kept mustering four defenders against him, and he kept losing the ball. In the first half, Messi excelled in the improbable guise of defender. He is a rare striker who always presses opposition defenders, buzzing around them like a bee when they have the ball. Nemanja Vidic, not a man at ease in possession, was often discommoded.

In the second half, Messi demonstrated the other facet of his game: goalscoring. Few players can dribble past defenders, and few of the ones who can are natural scorers, but Messi - like Ronaldo - is dribbler and finisher in one. His header over United's keeper Edwin van der Sar, left him highest scorer of this year's Champions League with nine goals. Not only did Messi beat Ronaldo in Rome, but he also won a battle against a ghost. Everyone who sees the tiny one-footed Argentine is reminded of Diego Maradona. For long, the debate has been whether Messi might ever be as good as Maradona. That remains unclear, but what we can now say is that he might achieve more than Maradona. At 21, he has won a European Cup - Maradona never did. And because he plays in a better team than Maradona ever did, and is the saner person, he may go on to build a larger trophy cabinet.

Ronaldo was not left for dust in Rome. When in possession he is often brisker than Messi, freeing space to shoot instantly; and that shot may be the best in football. Ronaldo's first-minute free-kick could easily have gone in. What lets the Portuguese winger down is his personality. After he had dominated the game's first 15 minutes, Barca's coach Josep Guardiola deputed Carles Puyol to mark him. Suddenly Ronaldo was trapped. His instinctive response was not to demand every ball and lead his stricken team back into the game, but to sulk. He sulked at Puyol, sulked at his teammates, and sulked at his manager.

"The tactics were not good," Ronaldo said afterwards. He was the only player on either team booed (by Barca's fans) when collecting his medal, which he quickly stuck away as if it were infected. Asked later if he would be at United next season, he said: "I don't know." Chances are that from this summer, his ego will belong to Real Madrid. When Messi collected his medal, Michel Platini, the Uefa president, tapped him on the head as if to anoint him. The Golden Ball for European Player of the Year already assuredly belongs to the Argentine, and probably not for the last time.