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Forget Mbappe vs Haaland! Messi vs Ronaldo will always be football's greatest rivalry

FC Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg
FC Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg
Robin Bairner
EXPERT COLUMNIST
Modified 20 Feb 2021
Feature
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Last week might have marked the latest stage in the changing of the guard at the top of world football, as Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland outshone Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But the quicker it is accepted that the pair will never experience a rivalry as intense as the veteran duo, the better it will be.

Mbappe’s blistering hat-trick against Messi’s Barcelona in PSG's 4-1 victory was the first a visiting player had managed in the Champions League at the Camp Nou since Andriy Shevchenko in 1997. In the process, the World Cup winner, who is still only 22, enhanced his burgeoning reputation as the next big thing in the game.

Barely 24 hours later, Haaland responded with an impressive double against Sevilla. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s Juventus were outplayed in a 2-1 defeat at Porto.

It is the latest stage of the baton being passed from one generation to the next. The media clamour for a rivalry to match up to that of Messi and Ronaldo is simply evidence of the indelible mark the pair has had on the game.

Over the last decade, they have traded blow for blow, goal for goal and Ballon d’Or for Ballon d’Or. The likelihood is that no-one alive will ever see such a duel again.

Messi and Ronaldo have always insisted that there has been no animosity between them off the field. But on it, they have driven each other to incredible heights.

Their rivalry, however, was borne in unique circumstances

Messi was the centrepiece of the greatest Barcelona side of all time. Ronaldo, meanwhile, was Real Madrid’s ace, helping the club win three successive Champions League titles in succession.

Their regular high-profile on-field battles with the two Clasico rivals will go down as the stuff of legend, two of the game’s greatest players going toe-to-toe at two of the game’s greatest ever clubs.

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Since Ronaldo moved to Juventus to seek a fresh challenge, the edge of this great duel has been blunted. Antonio Cassano, a fellow former Madridista, has branded Ronaldo as 'selfish' and 'struggling', despite his enormous goal haul, as the Turin side are in transition under Andrea Pirlo.

Messi’s issues at Barcelona, meanwhile, are all the more chronic. Placed in a team of weathered veterans, promising youngsters and lavish transfer flops, the Argentine seems to be playing out time in a team barely worthy of his presence.

Moreover, with little over four months left on his contract and the club’s crippling economic situation, the prospect of him hanging on at Camp Nou beyond the summer seems slim.

The Mbappe-Haaland 'rivalry'

It is amid this backdrop that the Mbappe-Haaland ‘rivalry’ has suddenly been constructed, seemingly on the basis that the pair is roughly the same age and have produced strong performances in the Champions League in the same week.

Of course, there was last season’s Champions League episode when PSG and Mbappe seemed to mock the Norwegian after knocking out Borussia Dortmund side of the competition. That tie represents the only two times the pair has ever met on the field.

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With Mbappe in France and Haaland in Dortmund, their paths are unlikely to cross regularly in the near future, let alone during heir peak years. Indeed, with Real Madrid interested in both players, they are as likely to even end up as clubmates.

Indeed, there is surely a debate to be had about whether they are even the greatest players at their respective clubs.

Mbappe is embroiled in a friendly arm-wrestle with Neymar, the world’s most expensive player at PSG. Until Tuesday, the Brazilian was winning that argument comfortably this season, with Mbappe inhibited by injury, illness and surprising inefficiency.

At Dortmund, meanwhile, Jadon Sancho would surely have something to say about Haaland’s pre-eminence, But the England star has struggled to find his best on a consistent basis since rumours of a Manchester United move emerged last summer.

Thus, it is unlikely that Mbappe and Haaland will be able to trade 'blows' as frequently as Messi and Ronaldo have done over the years.

With Haaland a pure centre-forward, it is probable he will end up as the more prolific scorer, of the two. Yet there is little doubt there is more nuance and variety in Mbappe’s game. Indeed, Mbappe grabs assists almost as regularly as he scores goals.

While there is no doubt that the roles and positions of Messi and Ronaldo have evolved over the years, they have always had an identical superstar status in their teams and donned similar roles.

Of course, it would be perfect if there was a great rivalry to follow hot on the heels of the Messi-Ronaldo duel that has bewitched fans for more than a decade. But Mbappe and Haaland seems unlikely to be the one to watch out for.

Published 20 Feb 2021, 01:18 IST
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