When the group stage was drawn for the UEFA Champions League, the games that immediately seized the imagination were the Group G home-and-away matchups between Barcelona and Juventus.
It would be like the good old days, when they would meet with Barca and Real Madrid and their rivalry was in its full pomp. They overlapped for nine seasons there, from 2009-10 through 2017-18, when their personal competition and enmity was regular and stretched the boundaries of possibility. They burnished their reputations as the best players of all time — a subject about which there can no longer be any reasonable or intellectually honest debate.
Between the time Ronaldo was with Manchester United, their Spanish years and international games between Messi’s Argentina and Portugal, they met 35 times. Messi won 16 times; Ronaldo 10. They marked those showdowns with a combined 41 goals. And while they both played in Spain, one of them won the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player in all but one year.
Now, they would meet for a 36th and 37th time. Perhaps for the last times. Messi is 33; Ronaldo 35. Neither appears anywhere near retirement, but they play in different leagues and chances for them to collide are diminishing quickly.
Soccer’s great individual rivalry is nearing its end.
But their first meeting on Wednesday wasn’t that at all. It isn’t publicly known where Ronaldo lives in Turin, but it isn’t the stadium. And so he was nowhere near the game. Ronaldo had failed a third coronavirus test before the match, ruling him out.
So instead of going brilliant toe-to-brilliant toe with Messi, he was reduced to posting a picture of himself on Instagram, announcing that he was “Felling [sic] good and healthy!” He commented on his own post, proclaiming that “PCR IS BULLS***” before deleting the post deriding the test.
Ronaldo followed it up with a video of himself, because of course, running on a treadmill apparently in his home in full uniform before hopping off and performing his signature goal celebration and preening to the camera. It quickly garnered 17 million views.
It was classic Ronaldo, railing against his exclusion on account of a positive test for a murderous pandemic that hit the region where he now lives and works particularly hard. It oozed the entitlement that he has become known for.
Messi, meanwhile, is living through his own crisis as his boyhood club melts down. On the eve of the game, club president and occasional Messi antagonist Josep Maria Bartomeu was finally compelled to resign, along with the rest of the board. This move threw the spiraling club into fresh turmoil with elections only promising more uncertainty.
But at least Messi got to partake in the game — shorn, for the most part, of the Americans Sergino Dest and Konrad de la Fuente on Barca’s side and Weston McKennie for Juve, with only the latter coming on in the 75th minute — and he gave a vintage performance in an unexpectedly sloppy game.
It was, in turn, classic Messi. Barca prevailed 2-0. And Messi teed up Ousmane Dembele early on for the Frenchman to score on a long shot that took a looping deflection.
And in the late going, Messi fed Ansu Fati in the box, who was brought down for a penalty. Messi converted it himself.
At the other end, Alvaro Morata compiled a hat-trick of disallowed goals, two for offside and one for a handball, as he dinked in chances from close range.
But Messi belied his age again. Finding more space between Juve’s lines than he is accustomed to being afforded, he opened up long corridors to dribble through. He came close to scoring on a very early chance from some poor clearing in Juve’s box, but Leonardo Bonucci blocked the effort. Messi teed up others though, most promisingly Antoine Griezmann with a clear shot on his favored left, which he pulled wide.
When Juventus went down to 10 men in the 85th minute, courtesy of a red card to Demih Demiral, who inexplicably kicked out at Miralem Pjanic, the game was more or less decided.
After consecutive losses in La Liga — the last one against Real Madrid at home — Barca has won both of its Champions League games. But Wednesday’s affair never turned into the collision of icons the draw had promised. It wasn’t quite the same. Messi was Messi, but Ronaldo wasn’t there.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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