Ego V Humility...May the best man win
The world's two greatest players go head-to-head
They are so exceptional, in such a stratospheric league of their own, that the only realistic question now, the one which transfixes Spain week by week as it ogles their freakish feet and feats, is which of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is really the greatest player in the world.
This 'anything you can do' duel where Messi, for Barcelona, and Ronaldo, for Real Madrid, will in turn watch the other working wonders in La Liga and then seek to surpass it with something even more extravagant, has become modern football's matchless, unprecedented treat.
And tonight, with the claims for each combatant in Spain becoming more strident, it somehow seems appropriate that the convention should now move to neutral territory for an evening in Geneva where Messi's Argentina will play Ronaldo's Portugal.
Considering everyone seems unanimous that this latest round of international friendlies is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike, the first time the dynamic duo have ever crossed swords on national duty may be European football's sole compensation this week.
Intriguingly, their lack of impact for their countries in major championships is just about the last stick with which to beat their reputations.
It did not stop Atletico Madrid coach Quique Sanchez Flores declaring after Messi had sliced apart his side with a hat-trick on Saturday: "He is the best player I've ever seen, the Di Stefano of the 21st century."
Naturally, this was as a red rag to Real, a club who regard Alfredo di Stefano as the nonpareil. So, after Ronaldo had responded with a brilliant double against Real Sociedad the following night, making him the fastest Madrid player ever to 50 league goals -- in just 51 games -- it allowed Real's general manager Jorge Valdano to hit back.
"It is not Messi (who is the 21st century Di Stefano)," he said. "It is Cristiano Ronaldo, who significantly wears the same shirt as Di Stefano. We wouldn't swap Cristiano for anyone."
The debate, naturally, zips along familiar old tribal lines. In the Castilian corner, they plump for the strapping Ronaldo, all dazzle and ego and show-off individualism; and in the Catalan, little Messi, the consummate team man with a once in a lifetime gift which just says 'quiet, genius at work'. It is tough to be impartial about these two.
In Madrid, Ronaldo is Superman, the bloke who can do anything and is having to do so just to keep them dreaming in a football world where Messi's Barca represents only their ultimate nightmare.
Ronaldo, sighed 'Marca' journalist Roberto Palomar, didn't just shoot, build the plays, score and make goals, but you could swear he also folded the shirts, cleaned the boots and cut the grass.
"The only thing left for him to do is man the ticket office," he wrote. Yet the Catalan press have taken glee in pointing out after each of Messi's hyped head-to-head triumphs, especially after Barca's 5-0 win in El Clasico in November, that Ronaldo is "light years from Leo's level". The argument, they insist, is not over Messi v Ronaldo, but over Messi v the best in history.
Better, though, than all this cheap point-scoring to just acknowledge, as Emilio Butragueno, the old Real forward and now club director suggests, that "we should all feel privileged to have them in La Liga".
Quite. Because when have we seen anything like their record-breaking double act in modern times? Both have 24 La Liga goals -- not just leading the way in the domestic race for the 'Pichichi' as top Spanish goalscorer (actually, 'Marca', the Real-adoring newspaper who run the award has absurdly credited Ronaldo with a 25th which was obviously an own goal), but also way ahead in the race for the Golden Boot as Europe's top marksman.
In total, Messi has netted 37 in 31 games in all competitions for Barca this season, while Ronaldo has 34 in 35. Never mind the stats, just feel the quality.
So, who is the best? Ronaldo carries a good team, while Messi decorates a great one. Ronaldo is more complete and can head beauties. Ah, but could he, as Maradona would ask, play kickaround with Jesus like little Leo?
It is tempting to be swayed by the observation of Walter Pandiani, Osasuna's Uruguayan veteran, who revealed that Ronaldo had tried to humiliate him after a scuffle in a recent match by asking him how much he earned.
"What Cristiano should do is end his provocations, know where one comes from and be more humble," offered Pandiani. "And learn from the world's best player, which is Messi."
Ouch! It's hard not to want to see arrogance outplayed by humility. (© Daily Telegraph, London)