Is this going to be Mess/Ronaldo last Clasico?

When he takes free kicks for Real Madrid in Saturday's Clasico against Barcelona, he'll set up in his hey-look-at-me stance, wait an extra beat or two for effect, and then run up and unloose his signature knuckle-shot.

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Messi
Messi

If he scores against the archrivals from Catalonia, he’ll celebrate dramatically. He’ll run towards the stands before doing a mid-air 180 flip, landing and clenching his entire body as he implores his teammates to join him. Then, more preening, more strutting.

Ronaldo
Ronaldo

It’s a ritual that delights as many as it disgusts. You either favor the braggadocio of Ronaldo and his luxurious Real. Or you prefer the timidity of Lionel Messi and his principled Barcelona – you know, minus all the tax fraud cases.

The almost theological divide between the supporters of these two geniuses, contesting perhaps the greatest individual rivalry in sports history, drove a happy chasm between those besotted with the game in this golden age. In a lot of ways, we were so busy debating who was better that perhaps we missed the larger picture of soccer being played at a higher level than ever. Thus, we failed to acknowledge that either man is better than anyone who came before them.

That’s the sort of thing that can be hashed out later anyway, when it’s all over, when the final whistle blows on this stratospheric competition between singular talents. And that day might be coming sooner than you would expect. On Saturday, we could witness the beginning of the end.

Messi is a question mark for the game. He hasn’t played since injuring his knee against Las Palmas on Sept. 26. And while he has resumed practice, it’s unclear if he’ll be ready to play – and if he can, how much. In a poll conducted by Sport, a Catalan newspaper loyal to Barca, 79 percent of the 3,599 voters said they would prefer Messi not start the game in order to prevent aggravating his injury.

“It is evident he isn’t 100 percent physically, but, whether he plays or not, the great news is that he has recovered,” Barcelona manager Luis Enrique told the press on Friday. “We will decide if Leo plays an hour before the game.”

If Messi misses the Clasico all together, which isn’t inconceivable, it will be the first time in the 24 Clasicos that have taken place since Ronaldo joined Real in the summer of 2009 that either man has missed the game – a span during which, by the way, the two have combined to score 72 hat tricks for their respective clubs.

He would be missed by Barca – and the neutral viewer – as the tiny Argentine has scored the most goals in El Clasico’s history, 21. (Ronaldo is tied for third, with 15 in five fewer years of head-to-head contests with Barcelona.) And that’s to say nothing of Barca needing him badly in its defense on enemy turf of the three-point gap it has opened on Real atop the Spanish league.

But even if he does play, this could be one of the very last times we’ll see them go head-to-head in the historic clash between La Liga’s duopoly. While Ronaldo is still only 30 and Messi 28, the former might soon leave the capital.

Ronaldo, while still prodigiously prolific – his eight goals in 11 games are third in La Liga going into the weekend; and last season’s 48 league goals were his career high – isn’t the player he once was. He won the FIFA Ballon D’Or as the planet’s best player the last two years, but he has made the transition from winger to striker fulltime this season. These days, he’s far more of a penalty area poacher than the unstoppable blend of speed, power and finesse he once was, slicing and dicing up defenses. And while that hasn’t exactly harmed his productivity, his influence on the field has waned.

His contract runs another two seasons, but Ronaldo stoked the persistent speculation that he might leave this summer. “Why not? I’m a Real Madrid player at the moment, but you can never know,” he has said recently, according to the Guardian. “You’ve got to do what makes you happy. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow.”

Ronaldo, like any savvy soccer player, has leveraged his market value to negotiate better terms on his contract before. But it seems this time around the end really might be nigh for Real Madrid’s all-time leading scorer – who needed just 203 games to break the record Raul set in 550. Depending on which rumors you choose to believe, he has fallen out with manager Rafa Benitez and president Florentino Perez and become frustrated with the latter’s obsession with the success of fellow forward Gareth Bale – sometimes at Ronaldo’s expense.

According to several reports, Ronaldo is entertaining the idea of returning to Manchester United or joining budding juggernauts Paris Saint-Germain. Manchester City has been mentioned as well but seems less likely. Suggestions that he might join a Major League Soccer team were apparently ruled out when Ronaldo said on English television that he wanted to retire “with dignity,” which meant he won’t be playing in “the United States, Qatar or Dubai.”

Real, for its part, would be willing to cash in on the towering transfer fee he could still command, perhaps eclipsing his own world record of over $100 million. Ronaldo, after all, may still be an elite striker, but replacing him is no longer impossible.

Cristiano Ronaldo, in other words, is running out of Clasicos. So if Messi does feature in the game, for however long, enjoy these two doing battle from opposite ends of the field. It could be the last time.

And we might never see anything quite like it again.

Source: Leander Schaerlaeckens

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