Messi and Ronaldo remain masters of their own universe
The Nou Camp, with due apologies to Old Trafford, really did feel like football's dream theatre on Sunday night. A beautiful night, a classic Clasico, a galactico cast and yet, ultimately, the outcome resided firmly with the 'Billy's Boots' of the best two footballers in the world.
After they had both scored twice, sending more records tumbling and both inspiring then rescuing their teams in turn, the old parlour game began in earnest again.
Who really was the best? Which of them would be voted as the world's finest player as recipient of the Fifa Ballon d'Or in January?
Of course it doesn't really matter a hoot. Jose Mourinho, the man who could start an argument in an empty Bernabeu, even wanted the debate forbidden. Wasn't it enough just to say they were both fantastic -- or "not of this planet", as he put it -- without having to hang a bauble on the outcome of the debate.
The humble Messi sounded as if he would rather be anywhere else when asked whether he felt he should make history by being acclaimed as the first ever to win the award of world's best player for a fourth time (in succession, as well), ahead of three-time winners Zinedine Zidane and the Brazilian original -- and some would still say, superior -- version of Ronaldo.
"I don't focus on myself or anyone else," he mumbled.
It was just the sort of deflected answer you would hope to hear from the game's most humble hero.
It was also just the sort of contrast that you would expect to make with Ronaldo, who when asked a similar question back in May, professed to being weary of the subject before being unable to resist concluding: "Some people say I'm better, other people say it's him, but at the end of the day, they're going to decide who is the best player at the moment, which I think is me!"
It was said as a joke but you could never imagine Messi saying anything of the preening sort, even in jest.
Just one of the differences then between the pair which would make any right-minded soul root for Messi, who has nothing to declare but his genius on the pitch. Let others be advocates for him.
In recent weeks, Wayne Rooney and Guti, both former team-mates of Ronaldo, have joined the overwhelming band suggesting that Messi is the superior player.
And even if all Mourinho would venture on Sunday was that he wanted Ronaldo to win the Ballon d'Or, Barcelona's coach Tito Vilanova has not been shy in effectively declaring it a no contest.
"He (Messi) is the best in the world by a big margin," said Vilanova. "They are both fantastic players and, if Leo was not playing at this time, maybe Ronaldo would get more recognition.
"But he has had the luck, or the misfortune, to coincide with this player, the like of which we will never get to see again."
You could understand his theory. Ronaldo was superb once again, scoring two delightful goals, the second of which was converted expertly even as he was struggling on with an injury incurred when attempting a spectacular aerobatic strike.
Indeed, his whole performance belied the myth of a selfish sulker; Ronaldo never stopped battling and, as the first man ever to score in six consecutive Clasicos, who could ever challenge the old chestnut that he is not a big-game player? Nonsense.
Yet for all that, one came away from the game thinking of Messi's dreamy free-kick goal as the game's crowning moment.
No wonder Ronaldo is sometimes prone to 'woe is me' self-pity. Messi trumps him so often. His highlights reel is that bit more sensational; his individual creativity just that bit more startling; his X-factor just that bit more triple X.
As the Brazilian Ronaldo said, asked to choose between the pair: "Messi fascinates us more".
It is not a universal belief. Kaka may be biased as Ronaldo's team-mate, but he is not alone in suggesting that his mate's two-footed, soaring all-round powerhouse athleticism makes him "a more complete" player than Messi.
And there is a decent argument for Ronaldo, having inspired Real's emphatic La Liga triumph, to win back the FIFA award he last held in 2008 before the Messi love-in really began among the voting panel of national team coaches and captains.
Their weekly tours de force compels you to have to choose between the big two. The crazy statistics simply demand it. Ronaldo, with his 160 goals in 155 Real Madrid games? Or Messi, with his 185 goals in 179 Barcelona games?
For me, Messi has to be rewarded again for recording one of football's greatest individual feats, his 73 goals in 60 games -- an unbelievable 82 goals if you include his haul for Argentina -- eclipsing the 67 netted by Bayern Munich's Gerd Muller in 1973.
Sadly, in what one Spanish newspaper described as the 'Duelo de Titanes', there can be only be one winner, even if it feels in this year of all years that FIFA ought to split the prize and offer them a hemisphere each.
Ultimately though, Messi should prevail because, as Johan Cruyff put it best, you cannot help but watch him and believe you are seeing something magical, "a man who is in love with the ball". (© Daily Telegraph, London)