It was more or less what we had come to expect from Cristiano Ronaldo. As he leapt off the ground, Michael Essien could only stand and watch as the young star headed Manchester United into a 1-0 lead on a rainy night in Moscow, way back in 2008. He would have to be bailed out that night though. After missing his penalty, United relied on that famous John Terry slip to secure their third, and last, European Cup. Since then, Ronaldo has added four more Champions Leagues to his list of honours. He scored in the 2014 final to wrap things up, the winning penalty in 2016, a brace in 2017 before retaining the title again in 2018. He also became the competition’s top scorer.
Just a few years before that night in Moscow, a young Argentine had made 25 appearances for Barcelona, scoring eight goals across the 2005/06 season. That same year, an inspired Henrik Larsson substitution against Arsenal turned the tide of the match and led the Catalan side to what, at the time, was only their second Champions League. The club has since added three more, with Lionel Messi playing a crucial role in each. A header which defies the laws of physics in the 2009 final, another goal in the 2011 final – both coming against Man Utd – and then topping things off as part of a legendary front three alongside Neymar and Luis Suarez in 2015.
Thinking back to the summer of 2018, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Juventus, a club with a surprisingly poor European record overshadowed by fellow Italian sides AC and Inter Milan, would go on to dominate Europe. They had, after all, just acquired Ronaldo. Things haven’t gone as planned. Since then, the Turin side are on to their third manager in as many years with Andrea Pirlo now at the helm and have yet to progress past the quarter finals, failing to conquer the last sixteen in the previous two seasons. They also look set to lose their grip on the Italian title with Antonio Conte’s Inter in pole position, meaning the Coppa Italia represents their only chance at silverware this year.
In that same span of time, Barcelona have given up a 3-0 lead to Liverpool, suffered a humiliating 8-2 defeat at the hands of a sensational Bayern side and been well beaten by Pochettino’s Paris Saint Germain, with Kylian Mbappé responsible for four goals in that tie. Let’s be clear, this article isn’t another somewhat pointless comparison between the two greatest players to have graced the game, nor is it a criticism of their recent performances. I simply can’t bring myself to criticise players that post such astounding numbers whilst my greatest achievement remains a volley off a tree in Primary five.
In spite of the aggregate score, Lionel Messi was still the best player on the park against PSG, scoring a Puskas most beautiful goal contender along the way, despite his missed penalty. Highlights showed two chances for PSG – their penalty, and one in the dying seconds. Not that it was ever really in doubt for them but their big-money signing didn’t all deliver; Ousmane Dembélé squandered chances on more than one occasion whilst Antoine Griezmann offered little. Philippe Coutinho did not even make the bench through injury.
Juventus struggled against a resolute Porto side with veteran centre-back Pepe putting in a sensational performance. For them, it was their goalkeeper Szczęsny who failed to save a free kick towards the end of extra time. As much as some might claim Ronaldo’s transfer has been a failure, the sole occasion they reached the quarterfinals in his time there was courtesy of his hat-trick against Atletico Madrid.
Despite the cracked badges which will no doubt appear in the newspapers, things are not all bad for the clubs. Barcelona remain in the title race, even if they aren’t favourites, and have progressed to the final of the Copa Del Rey after a second-leg comeback against Sevilla. Juventus, whilst their dominance is set to end, should remember that this is Pirlo’s first season as a manager – they may just have to make do with a top four finish and the Coppa Italia.
For the first time since the 2004/05 season then, there will be no Ronaldo or Messi in the quarter finals. If the last round of matches confirmed anything, it’s that their replacements may have been found. Kylian Mbappe scored a sensational hat-trick in the Nou Camp, taking his tally to 25 Champions League goals. With Neymar out injured, the young Frenchman acted as the main man for the French side. He already has four league titles to his name, alongside four domestic trophies and a world cup medal. It will take some time before he reaches the levels of Messi and Ronaldo, but at just 22, he has already scored 116 career goals.
When people looked at Group E of the Champions League last season, RB Salzburg probably didn’t stand out much. Liverpool and Napoli looked certain to go through and it was just a matter of who would finish top. That was, of course, what happened, but Erling Haaland had other ideas. Salzburg would fall short in third but the Norwegian would score in every group game bar the last one before moving to Dortmund that same January and scoring a goal which created the most satisfying ball to net sound you’ll hear. Perhaps what people love most about Haaland is he is what we might call a ‘proper’ striker, as reductive as that might sound. When we think of strikers today, we think of the likes of Roberto Firmino or Harry Kane dropping deep to create space for others. So many of the Norwegian’s goals, though, seem so typically striker-ish – tap-ins, headers, screamers, he seems to have it all.
Whilst Dortmund have struggled in the Bundesliga this season, it’s not from a want of Haaland’s goals. At time of writing, he has 31 in 29 games – Messi and Ronaldo-like numbers. A move to the Premier League seems inevitable with his value skyrocketing given his performances in the Bundesliga and Champions League. The Norwegian does not have quite as many honours to his name with just two Austrian top-flight titles and a domestic cup to boast of, but he’ll be hoping to claim the DFB Pokal after Bayern Munich’s elimination from Germany’s cup competition. Alternatively, he does offer that rare opportunity for sides to simply outscore whoever they’re playing against – a Champions League shock is not completely off the table yet.
There has been much talk over whether the rise of two such extraordinary players marks a changing of the guard, and about which will rise to join the world’s best players. Mbappé and Haaland still have a long way to go when it comes to breaking the out of this world records set by Messi and Ronaldo who, it should of course be said, are not done yet.