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Reflecting on what might have been the final Messi vs. Ronaldo showdown

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If this is the last time we ever see these two football giants square off, it was not a worthy sendoff.

FBL-EUR-C1-BARCELONA-JUVENTUS Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

While the order can be disputed (although not for Barca fans), few can argue that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are two of the best players of all time, and they have dominated the footballing world for the past 15 years.

Messi with 712 goals, Ronaldo with 752 (the Argentine with 200 less appearances). Messi with 34 trophies, Ronaldo with 27; Messi with six Ballon d’Ors, Ronaldo with five.

Over the years, we’ve seen some memorable clashes between the two, not least the 2009 Champions League final, where Messi scored what he believes is his best-ever goal. Of course, there’s also the 5-0, the incredible solo goal in the Champions League semis, that iconic last-minute winner and celebration at the Bernabeu; the list goes on.

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

In truth, there’s been too many Messi vs. Ronaldo clashes to remember all of them. But if this match, this disappointing humiliation of a match, that we saw on Tuesday ends up being the last one, we will never forget it.

Barcelona, not for the first time in recent years, were comprehensively beaten in another Champions League clash against Ronaldo’s Juventus. And not for the first time, a positive performance from Messi was overshadowed by the complete ineptitude of his teammates.

Barca had seven shots on target against Juve, all saved by the legendary Gianluigi Buffon, who just looks like he will never retire. Messi had every single one. That’s right, not a single other player on the team managed a shot on target.

Conversely, Ronaldo scored two penalties, and managed one other shot on target throughout the match, a slow dribbler straight at Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Whereas Messi was constantly involved and had 125 touches, Ronaldo had only 51.

Messi was arguably the best player on the pitch, and he definitely outplayed Ronaldo on Tuesday. But history remembers the winners, and if it is the last time they face off, this match will be remembered for the two times the Portuguese was able to perform his iconic celebration at the home of his greatest rivals.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

In what was clearly an important game to him, Messi put in one of his most inspiring displays of the season, following what was certainly a poor showing by his standards last time out against Cadiz. However, his team-mates did no such thing.

Manager Ronald Koeman continues to stick with the 4-2-3-1, which is very clearly not working, but what else do we expect from someone who sees Riqui Puig outperform every other Barca midfielder and continues to say he’s surplus to requirements. Quite simply, the system he employs is a tactical mess, and will continue to work against the club for as long as it takes him to scrap it. Either that, or the new Barcelona board scraps him.

FC Barcelona v Juventus: Group G - UEFA Champions League Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

However, the blame for what happened cannot fully be placed on Koeman. Clement Lenglet, who just last season had been our best centre-back, now looks shaky, unconfident, and error-prone. Frenkie de Jong, a massively important player to the team, was unimpressive. Francisco Trincao looks absolutely bereft of confidence, and Pedri had an off-day (although at 18, he can be forgiven). Antoine Griezmann continues to show that he cannot be the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1, yet Koeman keeps on believing that’s his best position.

Throwing all these talented attackers out on the pitch with no tactical instructions and essentially playing with four No. 10s doesn’t work, and it seems like sooner or later, every Barca manager in recent years winds up reverting to the old “give the ball to Messi and hope he does something” strategy.

Messi plays better when he’s part of a system, surrounded by competent team-mates who complement him effectively. But that wasn’t the case against Juve. Barca came out as 11 individuals. Juventus came out as a team.

Andrea Pirlo had coached his side on what to do tactically, and it worked, to an extent. The threat of Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata in behind, as well as their strong, dynamic midfield, led to some chances, but Koeman’s side shot themselves in the foot on numerous occasions.

The first penalty was soft, and a contentious decision by the referee (it was actually a great challenge by Ronald Araujo). But what happened for the second goal, there is no excuse.

Both Araujo and Lenglet followed Morata in the box, leaving a 10-yard gap for Weston McKennie to volley home. Much was made of his brilliant scissor kick, but in truth he could’ve just brought the ball down, juggled it a few times, and then slotted past Ter Stegen, that’s how much time and space he had.

FC Barcelona v Juventus: Group G - UEFA Champions League Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

It was an absolute calamity, and it put the team in a horrible position 25 minutes in. Then, the third goal followed some more inexplicable defending from Lenglet, who seemed to forget what sport he was playing at the start of the second half. Ronaldo converted the penalty again, and by the time the final whistle sounded, he was the hero.

If anything, this match served as a reminder of how much Barca has held Messi back for the last five years. Some fans have the narrative that he doesn’t show up in big games, but looks can be deceiving.

He was at the heart of everything Barcelona created against Juve, and Ronaldo was largely non-existent. But one scored two penalties, and is Man of the Match, while the other fades into his shadow, at least for this game, because his team-mates let him down.

Pirlo gave his players instructions on what to do, and they followed it. It wasn’t the prettiest football, but it was effective. All they had to do was wait for Barca to mess up, and sure enough, Barca did mess up, and they took full advantage.

The difference between Messi and Ronaldo’s current situations are that Ronaldo is a great player in an improving system, and Messi is an exceptional player in a failing one. The 33-year-old was let down by his team, just like he has been ever since the last 3-0 loss to Juventus nearly five years ago.

In a way, it’s like Messi and Barcelona have come full circle. That loss in the Champions League quarter-finals in 2016 marked the beginning of a very chaotic period, where the Argentine has faced the departure of his two best friends, three very unsuccessful managers who held him back, and a president who hired marketing teams to slander him.

Now, barring some miraculous changes, Messi will be leaving in the summer, and it could be that the very same result that put his club in a downward spiral is the same one, this time at the hands of his old nemesis, that puts the final nail in the coffin of his Barcelona career.