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Tonight Ronaldo and Messi meet again, and everything has changed for both the players and their clubs

Tonight Ronaldo and Messi meet again, and everything has changed for both the players and their clubs

AP

Tonight Ronaldo and Messi meet again, and everything has changed for both the players and their clubs

Cristiano Ronaldo laid down the Ballon d'Or on the plinth in front of him and began his acceptance speech, Sepp Blatter to the left of him, Thierry Henry to the right. As he drew to a close, he thanked everyone and then paused. He leant in towards the microphone, clenched his fists and boomed out a long, deep "Si".

This was Ronaldo's third Ballon d'Or but he was determined it would not be his last. Only one player has won more and he was sitting in the front row, a runner-up: Lionel Messi.

Before the presentation, the two footballers had met briefly. Ronaldo called Messi over to meet his son, telling the Argentinian that Ronaldo junior watched him on television, talked about him. He also admitted that Messi's success helped to drive him. "I'm sure the competition between us motivates him too. It's good for me, good for him and good for other players who want to grow," he said.

For four years, Ronaldo had finished second to Messi but he had not given up. Instead, he took the trophy two years in a row. A year before, his tears had shown what it meant to him. Maybe Ronaldo was right; maybe he does motivate Messi too. The Ballon d'Or ceremony was on January 12. Real Madrid had just won the Club World Cup. They were top of the league table and Ronaldo was the pichichi, La Liga's top scorer. Messi was second, but he was 10 goals behind: 16 to 26. They had met just once, in October, and Madrid had won 3-1, the first time they had defeated Barcelona by more than one goal in six years. Ronaldo had scored, Messi had not.

Tonight, they meet again and everything has changed for the players and the clubs. Messi is now two goals in front, 32-30, and Barcelona are top of the table. Win at the Camp Nou and they will go four points clear.

Xavi Hernandez once described Real Madrid and Barcelona as being like two sides of a scales: there's something in the symbiotic relationship between them that means they cannot both be up at the same time, even if both are playing well. That has not always been true of the two players who define them, but it is this time. "Going up, going down," ran the gleeful headline on the cover of the Catalan sports daily El Mundo Deportivo last week, alongside pictures of the pair.

"2015 has already begun and there are more titles to be won," Ronaldo had said that night in Zurich. The year started badly for Messi. He was left out as Barcelona were beaten at Real Sociedad, precipitating a crisis in which the sporting director departed and the president called elections.

Coach Luis Enrique denied he had been handed an ultimatum but something was not right. Reports emerged of a breakdown in his relationship with Messi; central defender Jeremy Mathieu later confirmed there had been a confrontation in training. But two months on, things look different. Messi looks different. The presidential adviser Charly Rexach said Messi had eaten "too many pizzas" last season and, last week, El Mundo Deportivo reported that, with the aid of a new nutritionist, he has shed 3.5 kg (8lb).

Messi was not exactly playing poorly before but there has been an improvement in him and others. The first league game after that defeat to Sociedad was against Atletico and Messi was hyperactive in an impressive win. That was the start of a run in which Barcelona have won 18 of 19 games, reaching the Copa del Rey final and the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Messi has now scored 32 goals and provided 14 assists in the league. In total, he has 43 goals and 21 assists. He has scored 20 goals in 2015 alone.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, has nine. He was sent off against Cordoba for kicking and slapping Cordoba's Edimar. There have been doubts about his fitness and happiness. After Madrid were beaten 4-3 by Schalke, he announced he would not talk for the rest of the season. He did not score in his last game against Levante, the night after Messi had gone ahead of him for the first time this season. His frustration was clear when a shot of his was cleared off the line and Gareth Bale turned the ball in. Supporters even whistled him at one point, to which he nodded his head and then muttered "foda-se", effectively "fucking unbelievable".

This, after all, is the man who will leave Real Madrid as the club's all-time top scorer, the man who took the Ballon d'Or from Messi three times.

Observer

Sunday Indo Sport