There are few untried tricks in Lionel Messi’s vast portfolio of skills. But the overhead volley he used to score his third goal of the season so far for Paris Saint-Germain is, it seems, the first of that type in all the 772 he has netted in his senior career. He took it elegantly, cushioning the ball on his chest before rolling backwards into a half-somersault and connecting cleanly with his left foot.
Because it was Messi, points of comparison were sought. Pele, the greatest South American goalscorer of the last century, struck some dazzling scissor-kick goals during his prolific career. But this being Messi, the goal was inevitably, instantly analysed through the lens of spectacular goals catalogued by Messi’s chief contemporary rival, Cristiano Ronaldo.
A little over four years ago, in a Champions League quarter-final at Juventus, Ronaldo struck a superb overhead volley to push Real Madrid towards a third European Cup in succession. Some place it among the top three of all Ronaldo’s 815 senior goals. Juventus fans spontaneously stood to applaud. Ronaldo remembered that generosity when he joined Juventus the following summer.
It did not take long for commentators to make direct comparisons between Messi’s ‘chilena’ goal at the weekend and Ronaldo’s for Madrid at Juventus. Even Ronaldo’s sister posted on the subject, and outlined some key distinctions.
Ronaldo had leapt high to meet the cross for his wonderstrike; Messi had his right foot grounded when he connected. Ronaldo’s breathtaking volley was struck, first touch, in a high-stakes knockout game against the Italian champions; Messi’s came at the end of a 5-0 victory against Clermont in a French league PSG routinely dominate.
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It all made for a fresh episode of chatter in what has been one of elite sport’s most vivid debates - Messi or Ronaldo? - for over a decade but a duel that has lost some of its voltage lately.
In the last 12 months, the enduring assumption that they are the finest pair of footballers on the planet has been challenged as strongly as any time since 2008. This year’s Men’s Ballon D’Or, held by either Ronaldo or Messi for 12 of its last 13 editions, will probably have neither on the podium for the first time in 16 years.
Yet there’s little question which of the two is the more cheerful as an epoch-defining season, with perhaps a last World Cup for either in the middle of it, gets under way.
A year after Messi departed, tearfully, from a Barcelona where he had spent all his adult career but who told them they could no longer afford him, he seems more content at PSG than at any time. In his two outings so far in 2022-23, the 4-0 Trophee des Champions win over Nantes and the dismantling of Clermont, he has been involved in four PSG goals.
In the whole of last season, Messi scored just six times in French domestic competition; he is already halfway to that total. “Last year was hard, he was still getting used to things,” said Christophe Galtier, the new PSG head coach. “When Messi smiles, PSG smiles.”
Over in Manchester, Ronaldo spent the weekend frowning. He was on the bench for the first 52 minutes of his second season since his return to Manchester United and finished on the losing side at Old Trafford against Brighton.
Ronaldo missed much of pre-season and has made it plain he wants to leave United before the close of the transfer window, mostly in order to play Champions League football. His 18 Premier League goals last term were not enough to lift United into the top four.
Among other things, he looks over his shoulder and sees that Messi, who will be targeting a long run in the Champions League with PSG, is only 16 goals shy of Ronaldo’s all-time record of 141 goals in that competition. A blank year for CR7 would almost certainly narrow that gap.
The difficulty is that the kinds of clubs who might promise Ronaldo a strong season in the Champions League are not jostling to prise him away from United. A reunion with Real Madrid is far-fetched, a return to Juventus even less likely.
Messi, by contrast, last week heard the Barcelona president, Joan Laporta, say he would like the club legend to return, one day, as a Barca player. Messi, tied to PSG at least until next summer, did not respond. He is busy finding his groove in Paris.