- Cristiano Ronaldo is now clearly the most consistently decisive player in world football
- Lionel Messi is no longer the objectively superior player in big games
- The standard of defending and goalkeeping is poor in Russia
We appear to be living in a time when the top sides attack each other, possibly because they no longer know how to defend. The corollary of that, of course, is that the poorer sides who don’t know how to attack put everything into defending and, thus, give us the three dour opening matches we have endured so far in Russia.
To prove the point, Spain’s coruscating 3-3 draw with Portugal was full of great attacking and lamentable defending. Take Portugal’s goals for starters. One was a penalty – Nacho dangling his leg like a fisherman would his tackle – and one was a free kick, wondrously netted by, surely, the best player in the world today, Cristiano Ronaldo. These goals sandwiched an appalling piece of incompetence from David De Gea, now temporarily, at least, relegated from any discussion about the world’s top goalkeeper.
All three of Spain’s goals featured comedy defending. Pepe, one of the all-time great pantomime villains, began this World Cup as he did the last, by helping the opposition to a goal. For Thomas Müller in Salvador, read Diego Costa in Sochi. No doubt the nefarious Atletico Madrid forward made contact with Pepe’s head, but this is Diego Costa we are talking about. Would you expect anything less? Referees wouldn’t, and the goal rightly stood even if Pepe was hamming it up in a huge frilly bonnet while chucking a rattle out of his metaphorical pram.
Nacho’s glorious strike, which pranged the inside of the post for satisfying dramatic effect, resulted from slapstick pinball in the Portuguese defence, and the first Spanish equaliser – Costa’s close-range goal – featured prissy defending by Goncalo Guedes, a man for whom the ball appears square.
Guedes was the main reason Portugal didn’t win. Ronaldo, all wonderful flicks and menace, played him in a few times only to find he was teaming with a less elegant version of Mario Gomez. De Gea, meanwhile, was the main reason they didn’t lose. His mistake isn’t an isolated one. He also blundered in a recent friendly, and he’ll do well to retain his place on current form. But De Gea is not alone.
Goalkeeping competence, like women’s rights, is also an alien concept in Saudi Arabia. Soccer Scribe, despite his ever-expanding girth and the relentless march of time, would probably have gotten fingertips at least to the opening goal of the tournament. As it was, Al-Muaiouf seemed to have his feet set in two blocks of quick-drying cement.
Ronaldo, though, was simply magnificent. While nothing really changes after this group stage draw, this was a wonderful individual performance when the chips were well and truly down. By cleverly winning and dispatching his penalty, optimistically buying a ticket to the De Gea lottery, and then producing a genuine moment of magic to save his team at the death, Ronaldo elevates himself above Lionel Messi right now simply because he is doing it when it matters much more regularly than his great rival is.
The Argentine enters the fray today against Iceland, but he’s been less decisive on the biggest stages than the Portuguese over the last few seasons. While he’s been objectively superior in domestic football, the modern game is defined by the Champions League and the big international tournaments. Ronaldo has won four of the last five Champions Leagues and Euro 2016. He has been top scorer or best player in many of those, too.
While he isn’t always decisive in finals, he has tended to show up spectacularly when really needed (Bayern and Juventus last season, PSG and Juventus, this). Messi, meanwhile, was missing in Rome, despite a 3-0 lead, and has been unable to turn the last three World Cup and Copa America finals his way – though Gonzalo Higuain has a lot to answer for there.
Ronaldo’s last gasp free kick was reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane, his former coach at Real Madrid, intervening imperiously for France against England at Euro 2004. Great players make decisive interventions when the chips are really down.
Ronaldo used to do this only when the stakes were lower – such as taking a penalty late in extra time when his team were already 3-1 up against Atletico in the 2014 Champions League final so that he could treat the world to his impeccably chiseled torso. How they swooned. Messi used to do it in Champions League finals when his team were up against it – such as against Manchester United in 2011. Now? Not so much. It’ll be fascinating to see if he is capable of a response.