MOSCOW, Russian Federation, Jun 16 – Cristiano Ronaldo has emphatically won the first round of his World Cup duel with eternal rival Lionel Messi — revelling in the adulation after his dramatic hat-trick while the Argentine flopped against Iceland.
Messi knew he had to find something special to match the Portuguese on Saturday but ended up squandering a golden chance to write his own headlines as he failed to convert from the penalty spot.
Then, with just seconds remaining in Moscow, the Barcelona man stood over a direct free-kick, mirroring the opportunity Ronaldo had the previous evening against Spain.
Ronaldo puffed out his cheeks, hitched up his shorts and arrowed his set-piece into the net to seal his 51st career hat-trick and pull Portugal level at 3-3.
In contrast, Messi, with the score at 1-1, drove his free-kick straight into the wall, booting the ball into the air in frustration as the final whistle sounded seconds later.
Ronaldo, who also scored from the penalty spot on Friday, has now joined an elite group of players to have found the net at four consecutive World Cups.
The 30-year-old Messi often edges Ronaldo in the debate about who is the best player in the world, with both men vying for supremacy on the same stage in Spain’s La Liga.
The Argentine is a magician at the heart of the Barcelona team while Ronaldo has transformed himself from a twinkle-toed winger at Manchester United and in his early Real Madrid days, into a devastating finisher.
Analytics firm Opta Sports pointed out that Messi had 11 attempted shots to Ronaldo’s four in their opening games in Russia, highlighting the efficiency of the Portugal forward.
Messi’s fans say Ronaldo, at 33, is slowing down.
Yet who is hotly tipped to win the next Ballon D’Or? Who has just won a third Champions League crown on the bounce? And who is a reigning European champion?
If the man from Madeira does pick up the 2018 Ballon D’Or, that would give him six to his great rival’s five, edging him ahead in their personal race.
– ‘Winking Ronaldo’ –
It is too early to draw conclusions in Russia. The tournament has only just started and Argentina — despite being held by Iceland on the Nordic nation’s World Cup debut — could conceivably go on and lift the trophy.
But while Ronaldo revels in wearing the red of Portugal and is feted at home, Messi can too often appear cowed in the famous blue and white stripes of his country.
And, amazing as it may appear to many neutrals, he has his critics in Argentina, who accuse him of failing to replicate his Barcelona brilliance.
In 2016 he retired from international duty after Argentina’s Copa America final defeat by Chile, only to reverse his decision weeks later.
It would be no surprise if Messi retires after this World Cup, particularly if Argentina fail to fulfil sky-high expectations back home.
“Messi misses a penalty and somehow, somewhere, I think Ronaldo may be winking,” tweeted former Barcelona and England forward Gary Lineker.