The atmosphere was buoyant inside Old Trafford on a balmy day last September as Manchester United entertained Newcastle and Cristiano Ronaldo lined up for the Red Devils for the first time in over 12 years.
The anticipation among the Old Trafford faithful was palpable and the Portuguese superstar did not disappoint. Two goals, including one in front of a mesmerised Stretford End, guided United to a resounding 4-1 win and optimism was abounds.
Their returning hero Ronaldo was seen as the final piece of the jigsaw to push Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side onto the title after a second-placed finish the previous season.
Cristiano Ronaldo rejoined Manchester United last summer in an Old Trafford homecoming
Lionel Messi sensationally arrived at PSG after leaving Barcelona due to their financial troubles
Meanwhile, in Paris, Lionel Messi was struggling to adapt after his emotional exit from Barcelona. The Catalan club had to let the Argentinian depart after being unable to retain him due to LaLiga Financial Fair Play rules.
The abiding memory of Messi being in tears at having to leave his boyhood club was one of the visions of the summer as he embarked on a new chapter with Qatari-backed PSG, joining fellow superstars Kylian Mbappe and Neymar in a mouth-watering attack.
It was poignant that two of the world’s greatest-ever players, who had battled for more than a decade on the pitch and shared the Ballon d’Or in 11 of the previous 12 years, both got the final big moves of their careers at the same time.
With the iconic pair having scored 267 Champions League goals between them, they were always going to be compared to each other in their new journeys.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have battled it out as two of the world’s best players
Ronaldo’s emotional return to United – where he spent six years previously – started brilliantly
Ronaldo continued his fine early form, as he scored eight times in his first 13 Premier League starts across the first half of the season.
This was coupled with some vintage CR7 moments, with the forward in superb Champions League form, scoring six times in five group games.
This included a last-minute winner against Villarreal, and late goals against Atalanta twice, to help carry an often underwhelming United through to the knockout stages.
In the meantime, Messi had scored just once in 11 Ligue 1 games, having struggled with fitness issues, although he did score a memorable goal against Manchester City in the Champions League.
Messi struggled initially in Paris, but picked up form during the second half of the season
When comparing the two superstars at the halfway point of the season, it seemed as if Ronaldo had got the better deal, while Messi should have perhaps reunited with his former coach Pep Guardiola at City.
However, alarm bells had begun to ring in Manchester as Ronaldo was dramatically dropped for a game against Chelsea when caretaker boss Michael Carrick took charge following Solskjaer’s sacking.
A few murmurs had also started to emerge about problems behind the scenes, while question marks arose about the impact Ronaldo was having on many of United’s promising young forwards such as Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.
Messi then started to pick up some form for PSG as he began to adapt to the superstar-laden team under Mauricio Pochettino.
The disastrous capitulation in the Champions League quarter-finals to Real Madrid at the last 16 stage does still point towards a tough first season in Paris for the Argentinian though, particularly as Messi missed a penalty in the first leg.
Messi and Ronaldo between them have won the Ballon D’or in 11 of the previous 12 years
However, he started to pick up some form, as he added 10 assists and five goals in 14 starts in Ligue 1 and PSG romped home to the the league title.
This included a sensational run of six assists in a five game stretch between January and February, before Messi dazzled at the Finalissima for Argentina against Italy, showing that he had truly regained his mojo. Ronaldo’s homecoming on the other hand began to turn increasingly sour in the new year.
Following the appointment of interim manager Ralf Rangnick, Ronaldo scored once in seven matches across January and February, while he also failed to impact the game during United’s Champions League last 16 exit to Atletico Madrid.
United’s season started to fall apart last year and Ronaldo cut an increasingly frustrated figure
United’s season started to fall apart, although the forward did continue to show his class, winning two games single handedly with superb hat-tricks against Norwich and Tottenham, despite a dismal team performance elsewhere.
However, things clearly weren’t working out behind the scenes, with increasing rumours of Ronaldo’s impact on the dressing room and fractions developing within the United camp, while the Portugal star cut a frustrated figure.
When Ronaldo was left out of the starting line-up against Manchester City due to injury, he flew to Portugal and missed the game – a decision that left his teammates surprised and there were increasing calls for United to ditch him in the summer.
To his credit, despite all the noise, Ronaldo ended United’s worst season in Premier League history with 24 goals in all competitions, and was named in the PFA Team of the Year.
Perhaps demonstrating how sour Ronaldo’s homecoming had turned, he indicated his desire to leave Old Trafford this summer for a Champions League club, as he was unwilling to play in the Europa League.
Ronaldo has been out of favour under Erik ten Hag, making just three starts this season
His future dominated United’s summer but a number of sides turned down the opportunity to sign the 37-year-old.
After he missed United’s pre-season tour due to a ‘family issue’, Red Devils boss Erik ten Hag slowly reintegrated Ronaldo into the team, but the situation has not been easy.
The Portuguese star left early after a pre-season game against Rayo Vallecano, while stories continued to emerge during the transfer window of his presence impacting the dressing room and the strong unity that developed during the club’s successful tour of Thailand and Australia.
He reportedly ate lunch alone at the training ground, argued against the high-pressing tactics favoured by Ten Hag, and showed his frustration with teammates in training – this is all a far cry from the fanfare that greeted the superstar upon his return last year.
Messi has begun to excel in Paris after an initial struggle as the French side continue to impress
United have started the season well without him, with many of the aforementioned young stars shining with Ronaldo out of the starting line-up, giving credence to the argument that the Portugal star hinders the side.
He has scored just once in eight games – a penalty in Thursday’s Europa League win over Sheriff Tiraspol, and it is perhaps ironic that his main hopes of playing are now in a competition he was so desperate to avoid as he tried to depart Old Trafford.
Apart from his goal the 37-year-old did little to convince Ten Hag last night that he should be starting in the Dutchman’s burgeoning side, although it is important to acknowledge he is still searching for full fitness after missing large chunks of pre-season.
Over in Paris, Messi is excelling in a scintillating PSG side under new manager Christophe Galtier, who finally looks as if he has found a suitable playing style for a team littered with stars.
He has already scored five times and added eight assists in just 10 games in all competitions.
The front three of the Neymar, Messi and Kylian Mbappe is devastating for the Parisians
The Portuguese superstar scored his first goal of the season in Thursday’s Europa League win
Playing in a devastating front three with Neymar and Mbappe, Messi is the calm head to his younger teammates’ occasional on-field disputes, while the front three is the envy of many in world football.
Perhaps the best comparison between Ronaldo and Messi can be seen in their interactions with fans during the European fixtures this week.
While Ronaldo was seen pushing away a medical worker and a ball-boy when they tried to get a photo with him during Thursday’s clash, a video went viral of Messi hugging the mascots before PSG’s game against Maccabi Haifa.
Just 12 months after their moves, it now looks as if the Argentinian, following his initial struggles, made the move that paid off.
But it would be foolish to ever write off Ronaldo – a man with 816 career goals.