Copa, Euros spiced up as Messi, Ronaldo vie for maiden international honours

Messi,

Cristiano Ronaldo probably needed that: a majestic performance from old rival Lionel Messi on the other side of the Atlantic.

Messi was imperious for Argentina on Tuesday night in Houston, the Barcelona superstar setting up two goals and curling in a sumptuous free-kick to become his national team’s all-time leading goal-scorer as the Albiceleste crushed hosts United States 4-0 to reach the final of the Copa America Centenario.

With that win, Messi is now just 90 minutes away from claiming his first major international title and Argentina’s first since the Copa in 1993.

Were he to lift the Copa trophy on Sunday, Messi will certainly take an edge over his longtime nemesis Ronaldo in a longstanding argument that the two best players in the world haven’t won anything substantial with their national teams despite having won everything at club level with Barca and Real Madrid respectively.

Argentina midfielder Lionel Messi kicks the ball as United States defender DeAndre Yedlin defends. — Reuters
Argentina midfielder Lionel Messi kicks the ball as United States defender DeAndre Yedlin defends. — Reuters
“He [Messi] is a great person but he has no personality,” Argentine legend Diego Maradona said in a discussion with Brazilian great Pele on the eve of Euro 2016 in France on Messi being handed the captaincy for the Copa America.

“He doesn’t have the personality to be a leader.”

Messi and Ronaldo, who wears the captain’s arm-band for Portugal, have a point to prove about their devotion to their country.

This might be the only year in which the Copa America – being played on the occasion of South America’s football governing body’s CONMEBOL’s centenary celebrations – and the European Championships coincide with each other.

And that is providing the chance for constant comparisons between the two in this summer laden with football.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo in action. — Reuters
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo in action. — Reuters
Till Portugal’s crucial Euro 2016 Group ‘F’ clash against Hungary in the French city of Lyon on Wednesday night, Ronaldo was having a frustrating tournament.

Thwarted by Iceland in a 1-1 draw in their opener, Ronaldo missed a penalty in a goalless stalemate against Austria with Portugal in serious peril going into their final group game.

“This was one of the greatest goal-scorers we have seen having an absolute nightmare,” said former England captain Alan Shearer on BBC on the night Ronaldo made his record 128th appearance for Portugal.

Messi’s performances in the Copa America – five goals and four assists in leading Argentina to the final – would certainly have heaped the pressure on Ronaldo, who admitted in a 2012 CNN interview that they “push each other which is why the competition is so high”.

Argentina midfielder Lionel Messi stands for the national anthem before the match against the United States. — Reuters
Argentina midfielder Lionel Messi stands for the national anthem before the match against the United States. — Reuters
So much so maybe that he threw a reporter’s microphone into a lake when he approached him as Portugal trained hours before the Hungary game.

It was a match that would’ve defined Ronaldo’s international career.

At 31, this is probably his last chance to win the continental championships and in a match where Portugal desperately needed their talisman, Ronaldo turned up.

He threaded a perfect pass for Nani to level matters after Hungary took the lead in the first half and then scored twice, both times after the Hungarians had somehow contrived to go in front, first with a sublime backheel and then with his head to help Portugal secure a 3-3 draw and squeeze through to the last-16 as one of the four best third-placed teams in the first-ever 24-team Euros.

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring a goal against Hungary. — AFP
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring a goal against Hungary. — AFP
Having made a meal out of what seemed like an easy group, Ronaldo and Portugal next face their toughest test at the tournament – a Croatian side that stunned Spain to top their group.

But with Ronaldo now firing, Portugal can hope – just like Argentina, who have Messi on full throttle.

Having come close in the last two years – losing the 2014 World Cup final and then the 2015 Copa America final, Messi would hope its third-time lucky for him on Sunday.

That would be a day after the Portugal-Croatia match.

With his brace, Ronaldo became the first player to score in four editions of the Euros but its Messi who is in rip-roaring form.

Lionel Messi dribbles the ball against Michael Bradley of United States. — AFP
Lionel Messi dribbles the ball against Michael Bradley of United States. — AFP
While Ronaldo has, at times during the Euros, taken it upon himself to be Portugal’s savior and crumbled under the weight of expectation – especially in the first two matches, Messi has disseminated his powers with his cunning and guile amongst his Argentine team-mates during the Copa.

While Messi still remains Argentina’s focal point, instead of playing in circles around him, his team-mates – stars like Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega – are now moving seamlessly alongside him, at his wavelength.

Ronaldo probably needs to do the same – disburse his influence amongst his Portugal team-mates.

With Argentina strong favourites to end their title drought on Sunday, the longer Ronaldo can prolong his and Portugal’s stay in France, the longer he would probably stretch what has been an inconclusive debate on who is the best player in the world.

It would however surely add to the competitiveness of this fascinating rivalry between him and Messi.

“Their rivalry is great for the footballing spectacle,” noted French great Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo’s coach at Real, in February.

“It’s what the fans want to see.”