Cristiano Ronaldo is still extraordinary – but no longer the best
Ronaldo has changed as a player over the last two seasons and though he is still lethal, is not the explosive all-action machine he once was
It is widely expected that this season will be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last at Real Madrid.
The galactic Galactico has been the focal point for Real for several years now, scoring an amount of goals that makes you wonder whether the people keeping track of data might actually be making it up. Yet his time in Spain, whether by choice or force, looks to be up come May, amid claims by many that he has peaked.
In 2015 Ronaldo scored 54 goals in 52 games. He remains an absolute phenomenon but the signs suggest that we may already have seen the best of Portugal’s superstar.
In February he will be 31 and his legs are beginning to show it. Even a body as painstakingly tuned and refined as his is susceptible to the demands of time. Ronaldo has adjusted his game accordingly, becoming the world’s most lethal striker over the last three seasons instead of the all-action winger he started as.
Lionel Messi is untouchable in race to be named world’s best
Barcelona forward was sensational in 2015 and makes the spectacular routine. He would be the deserved winner of a record fifth Ballon d’Or
As Lionel Messi picked up the ball on the right wing against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final in May 2015, no-one could have predicted what he was about to do. There’s an electricity that crackles through a stadium whenever he is in possession of a football; a feeling that something special is about to happen every single time – but even this was remarkable. The spectacular is so routine to Messi, so natural and almost effortless, that sometimes we only realise the scale of what has just happened as he is celebrating and we return to our seats.
He turns to face the midfielder, wriggles his way past three more, outpaces another two as he sprints down the line – using both feet to control the ball at lightning speed – and cuts inside towards the box. There he pulls another defender completely out of position with a drop of a shoulder and opens up enough space to launch a shot at the near post, catching the keeper off guard even though everyone in the stadium knows Messi is about to shoot.
It was as though once Messi had spotted all the pieces in the right place laid out in front of him there was no preventing the goal. He just needed to connect the dots and finish whatever puzzle it is he had solved before everyone else – no-one could get close. It was incredible.
Thierry Henry has described his old teammate as “a freak”, which is a lot kinder a compliment than it sounds but one entirely accurate; the scary thing about this Bilbao goal is that it was not even the best scored by Barcelona’s virtuoso that season.
How Neymar usurped Cristiano Ronaldo as the (second) best player in the world
Barcelona’s brilliant Brazilian has excelled in Lionel Messi’s absence while Real Madrid’s star player is showing clear signs of decline
Lionel Messi is rumoured to return to action against Real Madrid on Saturday. His absence from the Barcelona team through an injury sustained in September could have been seriously detrimental to the club’s ambitions for the season.
Instead, far from falling behind their La Liga rivals, Barcelona have been brushing opponents aside and Neymar has emerged as a genuine and worthy replacement. He is now a true contender to Messi’s crown.
“[Neymar] is so good that, when Messi stops, he will be his replacement. He will be the best player in the world, I have no doubt,” said Xavi, in an interview with Uefa (ESPN) earlier this year.
But Neymar might not have to wait that long – he has proven in the last three months that he belongs on the same podium as Messi, and has usurped Cristiano Ronaldo in football’s superstar heirarchy.
It’s not just this season either. Messi’s brilliance in 2014/15 overshadowed the work Neymar did. Neymar was an integral part of Barcelona’s historic treble winning side in 2014/15, scoring 39 goals in 51 games – an incredible return for someone who claims he is still learning every day from his idol, Messi.
If Neymar is still learning, someone had better explain his international goal scoring record, which is ludicrous. At the age of 23, Neymar has scored 46 goals in 67 games for his country. Only the long retired Pele, Ronaldo, Romario and Zico have scored more for Brazil and they had an entire career to do it.
Neymar grew up idolising Robinho, a naturally talented but fairly selfish showboating winger, similar to another former Brazil and Nou Camp favourite, Ronaldinho.
Neymar, like Ronaldinho, plays on the left of a front three and cuts inside to exploit the space in the middle. On the opposite side of the pitch, Messi does the exact same thing. Width is created by Barca’s dynamic wingbacks, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, and both forwards play most of their football in the middle of the pitch. But one is clearly more the focus of the team than the other.
In Messi’s absence this season, Neymar has scored 13 goals in 14 games and created an astonishing 55 chances – when playing with Messi, he created only 82 over the entirety of 2014/15.
But, where certain other world stars might become jealous, petulent or unsupportive of teammates who legitimately threaten their status as the main man (I’M TALKING ABOUT RONALDO), Messi has actively helped to develop Neymar into an individual superstar and a real team player.
Just as Ronaldinho took Messi under his wing at Barcelona, Messi has mentored Neymar and you can see the effect it has had on the Brazilian. We now know that when Neymar is the focus of the Barcelona team he can produce numbers just like his mentor but, crucially, knows the team comes first.
Having opened the scoring against Villarreal, Neymar let Luis Suarez take a penalty to make it 2-0 despite being the preferred spot-kick taker in the team.
If you wanted proof that Neymar is learning from Messi’s example, the gesture is directly related. In a match against Cordoba, Messi turned down the chance to take a penalty and score his hattrick in order to let Neymar get on the scoresheet – something the Brazilian said left him “speechless”.
Contrast that with Ronaldo’s stubborn refusal to allow anyone else at Real Madrid to even attempt a free kick – something he’s really not very good at any more – and it becomes clear that Neymar isn’t playing for himself.
Neymar is a brilliant individual player just like Ronaldo, but is first and foremost an integral part of a great team. If Barcelona are U2 at their glorious mid-80s peak, at Real Madrid, Bale, Benzema and James are just the backing singers delivering a platform of worship for the modern era Bono-theism of Ronaldo.
“Neymar is the best one-on-one. He is unstoppable,” said Gerard Pique in an interview with the Telegraph’s Jason Burt, Messi and Suarez are pretty good at it too. The problem at Barca, and all football teams, is the coach cannot allow every player with the ability to dribble and run at a defence to do so.
To give creative freedom to more than one at a time upsets the balance of the team and so with no Messi, Neymar is allowed to do as he pleases.
In his first two seasons at Barcelona he made an average of 3 and 3.2 dribbles per game. This season he makes 4.3 dribbles per game and is fouled an average of 4.2 times per game. Basically, Neymar either goes past any player he wants to or is fouled by that same player.
His wondergoal against Villarreal is something few players in the world would attempt, let alone actually pull off and arguably wouldn’t have happened if Messi had been on the pitch.
Neymar waits up front on the left from a counter attack and has the ball played to him quickly. He heads it on to Suarez, who moves into the channel, freeing up space for Neymar to run into it. Had Messi been on the pitch, and this is all hypothetical, it is very likely he would be the focus of the attack and would have had the ball knocked to him on the right.
Suarez crosses ahead of Neymar into the box, who has the pace to beat the Villarreal back line and control the ball…
And the flick is incredible. Had the attack started on the right, Messi wouldn’t have tried the flick – he has other (all of them) ways of going past people, bringing others into play and scoring, hence his label as best in the world, but Neymar makes the truly difficult things seem easy. Because to Neymar they are.
In Barcelona’s 5-2 victory over Rayo Vallecano, the visiting side didn’t know what to do with him. Barca passed the ball to Neymar on the left, he used acceleration, pace and an assortment of trickery to get into the box and win two penalties in quick succession.
Neymar has all the flair of Ronaldinho at his peak, producing flicks, stepovers and all sorts of bamboozling bits of skill that leave defenders in tangled knots on the floor. Crucially, whether through growing maturity, practice or guidance from teammates like Messi and Iniesta, he has learned exactly when to use them and when not to.
This trick against Rayo Vallecano won Neymar his second penalty of the game to put Barca 2-1 up. Four defenders are watching the space Neymar can run into, two are directly in front of him.
Neymar pulls the ball to his left and feints to cut back on to his right, drawing the defender in, then quickly steps over the ball with his right instead.
This means he can use his left foot to nutmeg Nacho Martinez and leave the left back completely and utterly goosed.
Messi doesn’t use flicks and tricks, he just ghosts past people because he’s a weird freak sent to earth to entertain us all. Neymar does use flashy skills, but as a natural part of his game. Occasionally one or two tricks won’t come off and Neymar can look like he is unneccessarily showboating, but sometimes Messi loses the ball too – the technical nature of Neymar’s play just makes these moments more obvious.
Football is a team game, but the bits we love the most are those individual moments of brilliance that define individual matches and the sport as a whole. Neymar has proven over the last three months that he is absolutely capable of being the star of the Barcelona show and could go on to become the best individual player in the world.
As Lionel Messi returns to full training ahead of El Clasico, Neymar will go back to being part of a deadly trio instead of the phenomenen he has been over the last three months. Pep Guardiola knew he had to build his Barcelona team around Messi back when the Argentine began to show signs that he would become the player he is today – Luis Enrique might now have found himself in a similar predicament.
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