The mood was good inside Old Trafford on a balmy day last September as Manchester United entertained Newcastle and Cristiano Ronaldo featured 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 mesmerized Stretford End, led United to a resounding 4-1 win and optimism was high.
Their returning hero Ronaldo was seen as the final piece in the puzzle to push Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side to the title after a second-place finish last season.
Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Manchester United last summer in an Old Trafford homecoming
Lionel Messi sensationally arrived at PSG after leaving Barcelona due to their financial problems
Meanwhile, in Paris, Lionel Messi struggled to adjust after his emotional exit from Barcelona. The Catalan club had to let the Argentine leave after failing to keep him due to LaLiga Financial Fair Play rules.
The lasting memory of Messi crying 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, were both given the final major 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 on their new journeys.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have fought as two of the world’s best players
Ronaldo’s emotional return to United – where he spent six years earlier – got off to a flying start
Ronaldo continued his good early form, scoring eight times in his first 13 Premier League starts in 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 an often underwhelming United through to the knockout stages.
Meanwhile, Messi had scored just once in 11 Ligue 1 games, having struggled with fitness problems, although he scored a memorable goal against Manchester City in the Champions League.
Messi initially struggled in Paris but picked up his form during the second half of the season
Comparing the two superstars halfway through the season, Ronaldo seemed to have got the better deal, while Messi perhaps should have been reunited with his former coach Pep Guardiola at City.
Alarm bells had started ringing in Manchester, however, when Ronaldo was dramatically dropped for a game against Chelsea when caretaker manager Michael Carrick took charge following Solskjær’s sacking.
A few murmurs had also begun to emerge about problems behind the scenes, while question marks emerged over the impact Ronaldo had on many of United’s promising young strikers such as Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.
Messi then began to find form for PSG as he began to adapt to the superstar-laden team under Mauricio Pochettino.
The disastrous Champions League quarter-final defeat to Real Madrid at the last 16 stage nevertheless points to a tough first season in Paris for the Argentine, especially as Messi missed a penalty in the first half.
Messi and Ronaldo between them have won the Ballon D’or in 11 of the previous 12 years
However, he began to pick up some form as he added 10 assists and five goals in 14 Ligue 1 starts as PSG cruised home to 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 indeed regained his mojo. Ronaldo’s homecoming, on the other hand, began to become increasingly sour in the new year.
Following the appointment of interim manager Ralf Rangnick, Ronaldo scored once in seven games in January and February, while also failing to make an impact in United’s Champions League last 16 exit to Atletico Madrid.
United’s season began to fall apart last year and Ronaldo cut an increasingly frustrated figure
United’s season began to fall apart, although the striker continued to show his class, winning two games alone with superb hat-tricks against Norwich and Tottenham, despite a dismal team performance elsewhere.
But things were clearly not working behind the scenes, with rumors mounting about Ronaldo’s impact on the dressing room and factions developing in the United camp, with the Portugal star cutting a frustrated figure.
When Ronaldo was left out of the starting line-up against Manchester City through injury, he flew to Portugal and missed the game – a decision that surprised his team-mates and saw growing calls for United to drop 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 proof of how sour Ronaldo’s homecoming had become, 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 favor under Erik ten Hag, making just three starts this season
His future dominated United’s summer, but a number of sides rejected 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 about his presence affecting the dressing room and the strong bond that developed during the club’s successful tour of Thailand and Australia.
He reportedly ate lunch alone at the training ground, argued against the pressing tactics favored by Ten Hag, and showed frustration with teammates in training – all a far cry from the fanfare that greeted the superstar when he returned last year.
Messi has started to excel in Paris after an opening game 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, lending credence to the argument that the Portugal star is hindering 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 hope of playing now is in a competition he was so desperate to avoid when he tried to leaving Old Trafford.
Apart from his goal, the 37-year-old did little to convince Ten Hag last night that he should start in the Dutchman’s growing side, although it is important to acknowledge that he is still searching for full fitness after missing much of pre-season. .
Over in Paris, Messi is excelling in a scintillating PSG side under new manager Christophe Galtier, who finally looks like he has found a suitable style of play for a star-studded squad.
He has already scored five times and added eight assists in just 10 games in all competitions.
The first three of Neymar, Messi and Kylian Mbappe are 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 of his younger team-mates’ occasional conflicts on the pitch, while the front three are 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 matches this week.
While Ronaldo was seen pushing away a medical worker and a ball boy as they tried to get a photo with him during Thursday’s clash, a video went viral of Messi hugging the mascots ahead of PSG’s game against Maccabi Haifa.
Just 12 months after their moves, it now looks as though the Argentine, after 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.