x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Shooting stars that are poles apart

In the space of 12 hours last week, I stood face to face with the best two footballers in the world.

In the space of 12 hours last week, I stood face to face with the best two footballers in the world. A sharply suited and perfectly coiffered Cristiano Ronaldo was admittedly in a mixed zone, where he played the star as the flash bulbs went off and microphones were thrust towards his face. He declined to speak, offered an apologetic shrug and continued on his way with his new best mate Kaka.

The Madrid president Florentino Perez wants to project an image of glamour and power and his two most expensive signings do that on and off the field. Along with Madrid's other summer signings, they have plunged the club ?327 million (Dh1.76 billion) into debt, but his expensive gamble has seen a surge in confidence among fans who were disconsolate after Barca's treble win. Madrid are not playing with the effortless fluency of Barca, but for a newly assembled team, it's a case of so far so good for Ronaldo and Madrid.

The Portugual winger has scored in every competitive game he's played for his new club - an impressive six in four games. He got two more on Sunday night as Madrid finally overcame an obdurate Xerez side to win 5-0 at home. That fifth goal was symbolic; it lifted them above Barcelona on goal difference at the top of the Primera Liga with nine points from three games. Surprisingly, the only other team with a perfect record is Athletic Bilbao, who beat Villarreal 3-2 at home on Sunday. Athletic's policy of using Basque-only players has seen them slip in recent seasons.

Among their second-half substitutes was striker Iker Muniain, 16. Described as "a pearl from Lezama" (Athletic's youth academy), at 14 he was named in the first-team squad for a friendly and at 15 became a regular for the reserves in Spain's third division. This summer, Muniain became Athletic's youngest ever first-team player when he made his debut in the Europa Cup - ironically against Swiss side Young Boys - and became their youngest to score last month.

With blond hair, he doesn't look Basque and at just 5 ft 5ins and weighing 56 kgs, Muniain doesn't look like he's going to be a Peter Crouch. But as Lionel Messi and Maradona have shown, talent can outweigh any physical characteristics. I met Messi at Barca's training ground the morning after seeing Ronaldo. Barca officials told me to wait in the stand and said he'd be with me shortly. He doesn't speak English. In fact, such is his shyness, you can hardly hear him speak. I did not see him or hear him coming but the next minute he was in front of me like a timid teenager, his fringe covering half of his face. He was dressed simply in jeans and a white T-shirt which said "calcio". He lives life simply but his personality is not only expressed on the football field.

"Were you in Rome?" he asked cheekily, knowing I'm a Mancunian of red persuasion. His character is completely different from Ronaldo's, but it is on the pitch where they are judged. Messi was again Barca's star at the weekend as he continually pierced Atletico Madrid's defence in a 5-2 win at Camp Nou. Like Ronaldo at Madrid, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is settling in at his new club with the added pressure of a huge transfer fee. The Swede looks to be a fine foil for Messi - the pair sit with Ronaldo and David Villa as early leaders in the top-scorer chart. Messi's not just about goals though. "The Messi Festival!" screamed the headlines on one Catalan newspaper as a tribute to his all-round game.

With two more league games this week for every Primera Liga club, Messi, Muniain and Ronaldo have ample opportunities to display their star qualities. @Email:amitten@thenational.ae