‘It’s not over’: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s last dance frames new Champions League season

Manchester United and PSG are banking on the brilliance of modern football’s two greatest players in an era where sides are increasingly based around systems

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Tuesday 14 September 2021 07:33 BST
Ronaldo: 'I belong to Manchester'

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It was a message that wasn’t expected, and certainly not that quickly. Ahead of last season’s Champions League knockout stages, BT did an entire programme on how Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland are the future of football, the new pair set to dominate the world.

It had clearly riled Cristiano Ronaldo. Before Rio Ferdinand was even off air, the pundit’s phone pinged with a WhatsApp. It was from Ronaldo. “It’s not over.”

It may even be starting anew. Lionel Messi wasn’t riled by such superficialities but he was riled by the manner of Barcelona’s elimination to Paris Saint-Germain last season. Even though he didn’t want to leave Camp Nou, the state of the team did play into the situation.

Modern football’s two greatest players moving clubs in the same summer is another historic development in their epic duel, and is certainly no coincidence. One figure who has worked with Ronaldo says his decision to leave Juventus was “100 per cent” influenced by Messi moving to PSG. The Portuguese was already greatly regretting his transfer to Serie A, and felt the Italian club were a long way from challenging for the Champions League. His great rival putting himself in prime position to win it again, as well as another Ballon d’Or, clarified Ronaldo’s thinking. “He had to act,” one source says. “That’s what a real competitor does.”

So, for arguably the first time in at least three years - and in what might well be the last significant chapters of their careers – Messi and Ronaldo once again frame a new Champions League season. More than a last dance, it’s a last tango. The two greatest players of the modern football age are again driving each other, looking for that grandiose last victory. And they’ve taken that personally.

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring on his Manchester United return
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring on his Manchester United return (Manchester United via Getty Images)

“It’s more about themselves,” Ferdinand tells The Independent. “I don’t think they care about Mbappe and Haaland. They’re more interested in their own legacies, continuing their success. They were at clubs who had very little chance of winning the Champions League in Juventus and Barcelona, in the situations they were in. They’ve both joined clubs now with definite potential to actually challenge in Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain.”

Both players also enhance that potential. For all the debate about Messi and Ronaldo as they reach their mid-thirties, one thing is absolutely certain: they still offer the individual moments of brilliance to win any game. That is especially potent in a knockout competition, even if this is the first Champions League season denied the sudden fatal stroke of an away goal after the rule was removed. They can carry a team to the trophy.

And yet that sporting tension between Messi and Ronaldo – as well as Mbappe and Haaland – is not the only one that drives this Champions League. There’s also the tension between the system and the individual. For all the qualities of these two greats, they’re at a point in their careers where they come with significant compromises. The other side of their moves is that Juventus actively wanted to get rid of Ronaldo and many Barcelona officials could see the logic in losing Messi. The two exert an immense gravitational pull on a team. That’s in terms of budget and tactics, effectively limiting what you can do.

Both Juve and Barca found they couldn’t move forward off the pitch. On it, their teams had to play a certain way. It immediately puts United and PSG on one side of a clear divide between the main contenders. Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Bayern Munich all represent “system” teams. PSG, United and Real Madrid all represent teams built on accommodating individuals. The latter is because these individuals do consistently offer solutions, but they also leave questions.

With Messi, it is whether enough players will actually press for PSG to work. That’s all the more pronounced an issue since pressing is the foundational principle of Mauricio Pochettino’s entire managerial ethos. It’s what his career is built on. It’s why he has so far been best suited to a hungry young squad, who are more malleable, and more willing to just run. There is at least the possibility that this is another grand mismatch, another sign of how PSG have been put together with no real planning or ideology. The feeling in the game is that Pochettino may have to significantly compromise his approach, or else PSG could just be cut open in the way City did to them in the semi-finals. It certainly won’t be a pure Pochettino system.

Kylian Mbappe gives instructions to Lionel Messi
Kylian Mbappe gives instructions to Lionel Messi (Getty Images)

Ferdinand, who twice played against Messi at the Argentine’s physical peak, feels it can work. “I think he’ll probably be played as a false nine,” Ferdinand says. “If he plays centrally, and Mbappe’s coming in off the left, all the space to run into, with Neymar probing from behind as well, that’s a mouthwatering prospect.

“Messi can still do what he did to us. He still plays the game in bursts. He is always able to turn a game with a turn of pace or a great pace. He’s always been able to play the final, but he looks for it more now, that ability to thread. I still think he’s got that ability to put you off balance and then he’s gone. There’s not a way at getting back at him. He’s away, and he’s releasing or shooting.”

If Messi has dropped further back on the pitch, Ronaldo has gone further forward. He must now be the fixed focal point of any team he plays in. This can make his sides predictable, but comes with the significant offset that he has been the greatest guarantee of goals in the world. “He does what he does,” to quote United’s manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

It is why Ferdinand rejects some of the criticism of Ronaldo from Juve. “I think that’s people over there probably connected to the club, or having an emotional attachment to the club, being a bit biased or unhappy he’s left. He’s gone there and outscored everyone at the club, he’s outscored everybody else. He was the top scorer in the league last season. When you’ve got a player of his calibre, he’s earned the right for you to build the team around him, and for people to adapt to the way he plays. A man of that quality, who’s done what he’s done over his career and is continuing to do, demands that.”

It is also why this Ronaldo may specifically suit this United in the Champions League. Those at Old Trafford willingly talk about how Solskjaer doesn’t have an ingrained tactical ideology in the way Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp do, but not in any disparaging way. They feel it can allow flexibility, which is suddenly ideal for a player like Ronaldo dropping into the squad. “It doesn’t require any great change from a tactical perspective,” Ferdinand says.

It is far from impossible that United emulate what Madrid did with Ronaldo between 2015 and 2018, and win a Champions League through individual brilliance and moments. Like Solskjaer, Zinedine Zidane was far from an ideology manager. Like that Madrid, United have exceptional attacking options, who can impose a structure on a team through their quality. There are two or more stars for every position. It is up there with PSG as the best array of forwards in the competition.

That feeling is only fostered by the presence of one of Madrid’s former pillar stones at the back, in Raphael Varane. Such strengths at either end can overcome midfield problems in the immediacy of knockout ties. There is still the inherent danger that a fully working system can simply outmanoeuvre them.

It feels like that is going to be one of the grand themes of this Champions League, the system against individualism – as defined by two of the greatest individual players in football history. The outcome may be the biggest message of all.

Much will depend on how much the drive of these two individuals can influence it all. It is a last tango, amid grander movements.

BT Sport is the exclusive home of UEFA Champions League football. Watch every game of the 2021/22 competition live on TV, online and on the BT Sport app. For more info, visit btsport.com

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