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C Ronaldo escaped Real Madrid at the right time but Lionel Messi's Barcelona empire is crumbling



The Catalans are coming off the back of yet another defeat and are struggling in Europe while Ronaldo's Juventus adventure has yielded two titles


It took a lot for Lionel Messi to finally break, but eventually he did, on a sticky night in Lisbon this summer.


His perfect partnership with Barcelona was snapped, as the team crashed out of the Champions League against Bayern Munich in a humiliating 8-2 quarter-final defeat.


Messi had finally had enough and - like Real Madrid’s all-time top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo did two seasons earlier at the same age - the 33-year-old wanted out.


Despite his misgivings about Josep Maria Bartomeu’s since-deposed board, and the way the team collapsed at Roma and then at Anfield in Europe, Messi stayed, hoping to win the Champions League again with the club he has played at since his early teens.


The idea of ripping himself away from his friends in the squad, his comfortable Castelldefels surroundings and the city that has become home for him was too much, until that latest humiliation.


Messi did everything he could to flee, demanding the club honour a clause in his contract which would let him walk away for free at the end of the season. It was a bold public move for a shy figure.


However, because the coronavirus pandemic delayed the completion of the campaign, the date Messi’s decision had to be made by had long passed and Bartomeu held on to the forward.


Taking the club he loves to court would have been too much for Messi, who resigned himself to staying for this season.


As Ronaldo returns to Spain on Tuesday with Juventus as a double Serie A winner, Messi will wonder what might have been had he been able to escape.


Messi and Ronaldo defined nearly a decade in La Liga, competing with each other every year for the golden boot and Ballon d’Or, figureheads for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.


When you thought of Spanish football, you thought of Messi vs Ronaldo, D10S vs CR7, even Argentina vs Portugal. Now the league is not what it used to be, and nor is Messi.


Still shaken by what happened against Bayern and off the field in the summer, trapped in a Barcelona hell, we have only seen flashes of the Argentine’s true ability this season, with Barcelona languishing eighth, 12 points behind title favourites Atletico Madrid.


Ronaldo knew the good times were drawing to an end at Madrid in 2018, and decided to leave. He noted that president Florentino Perez no longer considered him “indispensable”, and was certain of his own value.


The Portuguese forward, who won four Champions League trophies at the club and scored 450 goals, decided to play out his final years elsewhere. Ronaldo chose Italy and Juventus. for various reasons.


Favourable tax laws meant he could keep more of his salary than in Spain or England, the style of play suits players in their elder years, and he could still compete for major honours with one of the best teams on the continent.


Messi, however, noted Barcelona making bad decisions in the transfer market, splurging the money they got for Neymar on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, but clung on to his hopes of success at Camp Nou.


It was a mistake, with Barcelona’s empire quickly crumbling down around him, and by the time he eventually decided to go, Bartomeu would not allow him passage.


“The truth is that there has been no project or anything for a long time, they juggle everything and plug holes as they go along,” Messi told Goal, in a world exclusive interview in the wake of his transfer request.


Juventus operate around Ronaldo, a key figure even at 35, bordering 36, essential in their two title triumphs under Massimiliano Allegri and Maurizio Sarri, and he has eight goals in six games this season in Serie A.


Ronaldo was all smiles on Saturday as he was handed a shirt marking his 750th career goal, but back in Spain his Barcelona counterpart was grimacing after a dismal defeat by promoted minnows Cadiz.


Messi has scored just twice from open play and has four from 10 appearances in La Liga, looking an odd piece of the puzzle in Ronald Koeman’s perplexing jigsaw. The team’s reliance on Messi is written in its muscle memory, but carrying a Barcelona this beleaguered seems a job beyond him now.


How different might things have been for Messi had he joined Manchester City in the summer? He might have brought the goals and finishing that Pep Guardiola’s team have been missing at times this season.


Seeing Messi’s situation, Ronaldo will be increasingly convinced he escaped Madrid at the right time. While Zinedine Zidane’s side won La Liga last year, it was by the skin of their teeth, profiting from a series of narrow, penalty-inspired victories.


In the Champions League they were easily dispatched by Man City, having been ousted in the last 16 the year before too, by Ajax.


There was a small win for Messi when he netted from the penalty spot in Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Juventus in Turin earlier in the group phase, which Ronaldo missed because he was infected with Covid-19, but right now there are no doubts he is in the better place.


When the eternal rivals meet at Camp Nou on Tuesday, doing battle to decide which of Barcelona or Juventus will top Group G, and who might have what proves the final say in their long-term rivalry, it will be hard for Messi not to wonder what might have been. (GOAL)

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