Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Lionel Messi celebrates his 30th birthday today.
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Messi turns 30: Leo or Cristiano? Cherish them both as time waits for no one
‘You are alive in the time of Messi and Ronaldo and should cherish both of them while you still can.’

THE CONSOLATORY CLICHÉ might state life begins at 30 but, as a footballer, Lionel Messi must know he is now entering the final stretch.

Tick into your fourth decade and, no matter who you are, talk of your peak in the past tense is more or less unavoidable.

Nevertheless, the man who has done so much to shatter long-held norms of what constitutes excellence is still nothing short of a phenomenon.

Messi has only a Copa del Rey medal to show for his efforts with Barcelona last season but the Catalan club have arguably never been quite so reliant upon him.

When he shot from prodigious talent to irresistible superstar under Pep Guardiola, the impish forward from Rosario had a majestically well-oiled machine working in smooth order all around him.

In 2016-17, Barca seemed to creak as much as they crackled. Punishing away losses to Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and – decisively – Juventus in the Champions League showed the midfield control of old and its accompanying aura to be fading from view.

Not Messi’s, though. In 52 games across all competitions he scored 54 times and supplied 19 assists. The fact we do not really bat an eyelid at these statistics anymore – it is simply what the man does – underlines his enduring brilliance as well as anything.

Still, to the victor the spoils. Real Madrid retained the European title and punctured Barcelona’s modern dominance of LaLiga. Cristiano Ronaldo, with 42 goals in 46 games – only ever in comparison to Messi could that return look anything apart from otherworldly – was their talisman once more.

It means the 32-year-old Portugal icon will likely tie their Ballon d’Or head-to-head at five apiece, Messi having held a 4-1 lead in 2012.

Lionel Messi at 30 Package PA Wire / PA Images Ronaldo and Messi back in 2014. PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

The slow creeping of time had also seen Ronaldo refine his approach of late. The relentless 90-minute distributions of torture for beleaguered defenders have subsided, replaced by a sublime big game, big moments, big impact expert. His dissection of the latter stages of the Champions League this season was incredible.

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Messi too, shows more subtle signs of changing. When Luis Enrique shuffled Barcelona’s system around to revitalise their season, Messi sometimes found himself at the tip of the midfield, the conductor behind a front three rather than one of MSN. It was a role he performed with aplomb.

Perhaps his Barcelona schooling will move him deeper as the years advance, while Ronaldo operates more and more with the penalty area as his domain.

The sense of direct competition will still never truly leave these two men who have spoilt us, as football fans, so fantastically. They are Madrid and Barca, so similarly brilliant but so very different at the same time.

Their playing styles line them up behind their club’s historic reputations. Romanticism versus raw power; artist against powerhouse. Look closely enough and, like Blaugrana and Los Blancos, they have more in common than they might dare to consider.

Arguments over who is better descend all too quickly into petty gibberish on internet message boards and social media. Unless you find yourself entrenched on either side of the Clasico divide, the time has come to ask, really, what is the point?

You are alive in the time of Messi and Ronaldo and should cherish both of them while you still can. Saturday’s landmark birthday reminds us this era will not be around for ever, so soak it up and remember to tell your grandchildren.

Happy birthday, Leo. Here’s to a few more years of you and your great rival fooling us into accepting the improbable as an almost weekly occurrence.

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