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Mar 26, 2012

Messi and Ronaldo: Paired in history

It may not seem like it, but more history was made at the weekend. And even more will likely be made over the next two nights in the Champions League.

It isn't just that both Barcelona and Real Madrid continued their irrepressible, incredible form as they challenge for all of the major honours - a situation that, despite the clubs' respective heritages and rivalry, hadn't actually been since the early '60s.

It's that that form was again fired by the scarcely believable goal ratios of their two most high-profile players. On Saturday, both Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo scored. Of course they did; as they will both probably this week. But, as with Messi's almost quotidian physics-testing quality, the routine nature of this ridiculous goal-scoring ensures that we nearly take it for granted. And, when you put the stats in their proper historical context, that clearly shouldn't be the case.

The goals against Mallorca and Real Sociedad, respectively, took Messi to 55 in 46 games and Ronaldo to 45 in 42 for this season. And, for the third campaign in a row, that has only been an escalation. In 2008-09, as both reached the Champions League final, their combined ratio was 0.62 goals a game. In 2009-10, it was 0.92. In 2010-11, it was 0.97.

This season so far, it's 1.2. It's also pretty unprecedented in football history, as the stats from the top levels of the club game reveal.

As can be seen, there's simply never been a goalscoring rivalry like Ronaldo-Messi.

Sure, Eusebio and Gerd Muller once outscored them - but that was a case of the careers of two great and unique strikers briefly overlapping.

And, yes, Jose Aguas and Uwe Seeler once equalled them - but that it was in an era when goal averages were much higher while, for Hamburg, Seeler managed to translate his form from the then-amateur German league to the elevated quality of the European Cup.

Overall, though, no two players have scored so consistently, over so many continuous campaigns, and at such a high quantity and quality while directly competing.

When Pep Guardiola was recently commenting on Messi's latest masterclass, he compared the Argentine to Michael Jordan. If that's the case, Ronaldo is Karl Malone. At least in terms of stark stats. And, along similar lines, this is Nicklaus-Palmer, Prost-Senna, Federer-Nadal. It also warrants greater explanation. For two players that aren't even pure centre-forwards - unlike Eusebio and Muller - why exactly are Messi and Ronaldo scoring so much?

The most obvious answer is their sheer talent. But, clearly, this is far too simplistic.

For a start, there's a stark difference when it comes to that talent. One of the players is only striving to be the best of his own time.

The other has a very real claim to already be the best of all time.

As such, there's naturally a bit more to it when other stars who were more or equally talented and played in just as advanced positions in more goal-laden eras couldn't get near the same stats. Indeed, those qualifiers are key. No player, no matter how talented, performs in a vacuum. No player completely dictates circumstances around him independent of teammates and opposition.

And that context is important here.

For a start - as we said at the beginning - both are part of two of the greatest Real Madrid and Barcelona sides there have ever been.

There's rarely been a football pyramid as perfect as Barca's that is also managed by a man who so intrinsically understands the infrastructure as Guardiola. On the other side, there's never been a level of expenditure like Real Madrid's that has also been handled by such a brilliant short-term manager as Jose Mourinho.

So already, then, two truly brilliant players are on an elevated platform.

Many, of course, like to claim that the Spanish league is sufficiently low for the duo to take easy pot-shots from there. But that seems a bit of a red herring. Most tellingly, both players maintain their ridiculous ratios into the Champions League. There is no drop-off between domestic and continental. Since 2008, Messi alone has scored eight goals in seven games against English opposition - including two in Champions League finals.

Rather, the quality of the two Spanish teams seems to render the opposition somewhat irrelevant.

In that sense, the escalating, cash-conditioned nature of modern football ensures that there have never been such outlandish concentration of talent at two clubs. In the 70s, for example, both Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer played in slightly more democratic eras.

Secondly, there's the very shape of those Spanish teams. As goes without saying since the tactics of today are built on those of the past, the formations have never been so sophisticated.

Equally, there's no denying that Real are completely constructed to maximise Ronaldo's main talents - power, pace and athleticism. Playing on the break and in quick transitions, the Portuguese exquisitely exploits the sudden openings.

Indeed, it's arguable that Ronaldo is only truly exceptional when an attack is aligned for him along such lines. For those that doubt that, it's telling that the one drastic drop-off in his scoring over the last five seasons came in 2008-09, when Dimitar Berbatov disrupted Manchester United's perfectly functioning line. Previously, in 2007-08, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney had foraged and fought in order to absolve the Portuguese of defensive work and give him complete freedom to finish. That season, he hit 42 goals in 49. Taking that along with his three seasons at Real Madrid, Ronaldo has hit in 173 in 180 - almost a goal a game. In 2008-09 alongside the more ponderous Berbatov, he dropped to under a goal every two games: 26 in 53.

Mourinho's breakneck system, however, clearly maximises his marksmanship.

By contrast, Barcelona are built around Messi rather than for him. But there's no denying that Guardiola's repositioning of the playmaker - in terms of both formation and as the club's figurehead - has seen his strike-rate shoot up. The Argentine has revelled in the greater responsibility.

As Messi himself has said, "from day one, he [Guardiola] told me what he expected and needed from me, that he wanted me to play higher up the pitch and closer to the opposition goal and to score more".

He has emphatically done that.

Because, as much as the teams make the players, the players also make the teams. While the two clubs have enhanced their totems, Messi and Ronaldo have also stepped up. They've got older and better.

Ultimately, the sum of all those parts adds up to some truly historic numbers. And, for once, we perhaps should get a little more hysterical about them.

• Miguel Delaney is a freelance European football writer and owner of Football Pantheon. Follow him on @migueldelaney

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