There will be no points at stake, but plenty of storylines surrounding a mouth-watering meeting between Argentina and Portugal at Old Trafford on Tuesday. Cristiano Ronaldo will be returning to the ground where he transformed from frustrating winger to a sculpted, goal-scoring machine, another former Manchester United forward, Carlos Tevez, will continue his international return, while current Old Trafford favorite Angel di Maria will be running out in familiar surroundings. But the focus will unquestionably be on the just the second meeting at international level between the two greatest players of this generation.
As the stars of Clasico foes Real Madrid and Barcelona, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have faced off several times a season over the past five years, during which both have been instrumental in lifting the biggest trophies in the sport. Yet at international level it has been a very different story.
Neither man has tasted glory for their countries and both have at times faced criticism from their homeland for their failure to reproduce their incredible club performances for their nation. Ronaldo and Messi have largely answered those skeptics in recent years, however it looks increasingly likely that they will end their legendary careers without major honors at international level.
Ronaldo has still to get as close to silverware as he was when a mere teenager at Euro 2004. Then Portugal lost on home soil to rank outsiders Greece in the final to leave Ronaldo weeping on the pitch. He has gone onto become his country’s captain and record scorer, yet semifinal defeats have followed at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012, before a woeful group-stage exit at this summer’s World Cup when Ronaldo was clearly short of full fitness.
Messi also looked short of his peak in Brazil, yet, with the help of Di Maria and Javier Mascherano, in particular, came up with enough moments of magic to help Argentina through to the World Cup final. At the age of 27, it was supposed to be the moment that Messi replicated Argentina’s former legendary No. 10 Diego Maradona in lifting the World Cup. Instead, Germany triumphed at the Maracana and Messi was left looking forward to the 2015 Copa America in Chile and the next World Cup in his 30s to break his international duck.
Just what kind of physical shape he will be in at that point is a matter for serious debate. Ronaldo is more than two years older than Messi, but is currently at the peak of his powers and strong favorite to retain the Ballon d’Or, while, Messi has modified his game from goal-scorer extraordinaire to supreme creator of goals as he has lost that extra one percent that made him perhaps the best player of all time.
Still, with 11 goals and nine assists for his club this season, Messi, by any standards other than his own, remains a sensation. It continues to be only the order of the world’s two finest players that remains up for debate.
On the international front, both Messi and Ronaldo are still discovering exactly how their talents will be harnessed by new coaches. Gerardo Martino is back in charge of Messi following his single season as Barcelona manager. So far the results have been mixed, with stunning revenge for the World Cup final defeat, courtesy of a 4-2 win in Germany, being followed by a defeat to fierce rivals Brazil. A 2-1 victory over Croatia at West Ham’s Upton Park last week was most notable for the return from the international wilderness of Tevez. Just how the man deemed not worth the drama he brings to the table after the 2011 Copa America integrates with Messi and accepts perhaps being just an option off the bench will continue to be a focus for attention.
While Martino has time to build a team for the Copa America, new Portugal coach Fernando Santos has been thrust right into the thick of a Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, which began with a shock 1-0 home loss to Albania that proved the final straw for Paulo Bento’s tenure. After a friendly defeat to France, former Greece coach Santos has secured crucial 1-0 wins over Denmark and Armenia to right the ship. Last Friday’s home victory over Armenia was far from convincing, but did see Ronaldo become the all-time leading scorer in the European Championships, with 23.
The individual records for Ronaldo and Messi will surely continue to fall and be taken to previously unimagined heights, but for both it is glory with their countries that they now crave.
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EST
TV channel: beIN Sports
Live stream: beIN Sports Connect