It is increasingly impossible to ignore the continued mastery of Lionel Messi at Barcelona with few in any position to dispute his status as the world’s best player, certainly not with the form he has shown in the current campaign. Andres Iniesta, Barca’s captain, has played a full 90 minutes just once this season with many correctly pointing to his age (33) and physical condition ensuring he can no longer feature as prominently as in previous years. The Blaugrana have acted accordingly with the signing of Philippe Coutinho, who is viewed within the club as the Catalan’s long-term successor.
Iniesta’s wavering powers only further highlight the ever-evolving brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo, who celebrated his 33rd birthday last month. The Portugal captain has largely been written off by many observers with concerns his awareness, reactionary speed and physical peak are starting to diminish. They point to his patchy form earlier in the season and his frustrations in front of goal as a fall from the summit of world football.
Yet the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s form since the turn of the year has been absolutely devastating – his double against Getafe on Saturday took him to 30 goals for the season. The former Manchester United forward has netted 14 goals in his last eight outings alone, and his goals tally is even more remarkable considering how many games he has sat out. He was sidelined five matches at the start of the campaign due to a suspension and he has also been rested for the recent league games at Leganes and Espanyol, alongside the entirety of the disappointing Copa del Rey campaign.
The Portuguese star’s absence in the defeat at Espanyol, the club’s erratic form at the start of the season and their Copa stint once more highlighted his importance to Madrid. Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Isco are all fine talents in their own right yet none offer the focal point or leadership of Ronaldo. Nor do any offer his predatory movement and none draw opposition defences out of position in the same manner.
He struck twice against Paris Saint-Germain and while many will point to his below-par performance, his strikes were ultimately the difference in a game packed full of superstars. It continued his remarkable run in the competition – 21 goals in his last 12 matches. Two against the Parisians, two in last season’s final against Juventus, a hat-trick against Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals and five against Bayern Munich in the previous round.
This is a player who offers the pivotal moments in the season-defining games against the best teams in the world. Madrid and Zidane are cleverly giving him sufficient breaks to ensure fatigue does not set in, which should theoretically extend his longevity at the top level.
His absence and subsequent lack of form earlier in the season mirrored Madrid’s poor results but when he is on the pitch in the final few months of the campaign, Los Blancos should be feared by every side.