Lionel Messi equals Champions League goals record before Cristiano Ronaldo
It has long been expected that Lionel Messi would become the Champions League's highest-ever goal scorer. But the achievement -- by finding the net twice in Barcelona's 2-0 win at Ajax on Wednesday -- was nicely timed.
Messi entered Barcelona's game against Ajax on 69 goals for his career and headed in his 70th in the 36th minute. He then matched Raul's record with his second goal of the day in the second half after Ajax had gone down to 10 men, busting a lung to get on the end of a pass from Pedro.
The double strike saw Messi equal the record of 71 goals in the competition, held by former Real Madrid legend Raul Gonzalez.
Raul's 71 were scored in 142 Champions League games for Madrid and then Bundesliga outfit Schalke between 1995 and 2011. Given the Blancos youth-team graduate made his debut in the competition as a teenager, and was still playing as a veteran winding down his career in the Bundesliga, Raul had pretty much the longest possible time to set the mark.
That the Spaniard, who is joining NASL club New York Cosmos for the 2015 season, also set a record for the number of games played in the competition shows his extraordinary longevity.
Messi equalling the record at the Amsterdam Arena means he has got there in 52 less games than Raul needed. A ratio of 71 strikes in 90 matches, at the highest level in club football, is pretty unnatural going. And Messi is still only 27 years old.
It did, however, take a while for Messi to get started, with his first goal coming in his fifth appearance in the competition, during a group clash with Panathinaikos at the Camp Nou in November 2005. The next two campaigns also brought just one goal each year, but that tally has hit warp speed since the 2007-08 season.
Sometimes, the goals came in bunches. The four goals against Arsenal in the quarterfinal second leg in 2010 was a phenomenal achievement, then bettered when Messi became the first player to score five goals in a CL match in Barca's 7-1 Champions League last 16 win against Bayer Leverkusen two years later. Scoring on Wednesday also means that Messi has now netted in each of the 15 countries and 21 cities in which he has featured in a European game.
Messi is the only player to have scored four CL hat tricks. But he has also found the net in the biggest possible games, scoring in both his side's 2009 and 2011 Champions League final wins over Manchester United. The superb solo goal in the 2009 semifinal first leg at Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, when he hurdled past four defenders before putting his side in control of the tie, is also surely among his favourites.
Messi flies back to Catalonia surely aware, however, that even his double against Ajax would not have been enough for the record, had Cristiano Ronaldo had his shooting boots on against Liverpool in Madrid's group game against Liverpool 24 hours earlier.
Ronaldo was up against the Reds' second string defence and took 10 shots in total during the game, but left frustrated as a mixture of Simon Mignolet saves and unusually lax finishing meant he remained stuck on 70 goals in his 107 career Champions League games. Just one more and he would have caught Raul first.
Both superstars continue to maintain -- in public -- that they are not concerned about what the other does, and that individual awards are not as important as team trophies. Few observers really believe that to be the case.
Messi's scoring rate in Europe has accelerated significantly since Ronaldo came to Spain. Before the summer of 2009, he scored 17 times in 33 CL games, a decent record, but the accumulation of goals has been turbo-charged in the intervening years.
For a while it seemed all but inevitable that it would be Messi, not Ronaldo, who passed Raul first. But over the past 12 months, the Madrid star has been catching up quickly, as injuries and a (relative) lack of form have hit Messi. The Portuguese scored a record season haul of 17 goals as his side won the competition last term, beating the previous mark of 14 which Messi had set back in 2011-12.
So on the day in which Ronaldo, now 29, picked up his third European Golden Shoe prize for top scoring in a domestic league -- and spoke openly about wanting to go down in history as the world's best-ever player -- it was perhaps extra special that Messi stole the show by becoming the leading scorer ever in football's biggest club competition.
For the moment at least.