“Maybe he misses me. I’ve played in England, Spain, Italy, Portugal and with the national team while he’s always been in Spain. I’d like it if he came to Italy one day. He should do like me and accept the challenge.”
Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t hold back when reporters asked about his great rival Lionel Messi, per ESPN. It was a telling choice of words from the Juventus forward, a challenge that speaks to the public perception of each man and their respective heritage.
The question of how Messi would cope outside the Barcelona bubble may never be answered, but in the virtual world we have the means to “accept the challenge” on the Argentine’s behalf.
We used the Football Manager 2019 Data Editor to transfer Messi to Napoli, the club closest in quality and financial resources to Ronaldo’s Juventus.
The game was simulated for one season only, although – full disclosure – our initial run was deleted when it came to light Ronaldo had been injured for half the season.
So we booted it up again and left the two greatest footballers on the planet to battle it out in Serie A.
Messi arrives in Italy to great fanfare, the obvious link to Diego Maradona’s time in Naples immediately irritating as journalists around the world incessantly seek to compare the two men.
Ronaldo sulks a bit and claims Messi is following him. Which is fair enough.
Juventus and Napoli meet on matchday two in Turin after the hosts beat Sassuolo 4-0 on the opening day and Carlo Ancelotti’s side draw 0-0 at Parma.
It was all a bit of an anti-climax in the end, the clubs playing out a dull goalless draw in which neither Messi nor Ronaldo have a notable impact.
They create one chance each and share eight shots. Embarrassingly, Messi is pulled at half-time, much to Juve’s –and Ronaldo’s – delight.
But Napoli kick on from there thanks to a remarkable defensive record; they don’t concede a single goal until the fifth game of Serie A, and at the halfway stage are still unbeaten domestically.
It’s a pretty slow start for Messi personally, managing just five goals by the start of the new calendar year. Napoli only score 33 in that time and yet are still only two points behind leaders Juve.
Ronaldo’s side are predictably rampant, amassing 45 points and 44 goals, the Portuguese scoring 10.
Neither player, then, quite lives up to the hype during a bedding-in period in Italy that leaves the world’s media a little bored. Perhaps both should have stayed in Spain.
The Maradona comparisons aren’t going in Messi’s favour, that’s for sure. Why on earth, after years of playing in Diego’s shadow for the national team, did he make the move to Naples?
By the end of January it looks as though the title race is over and the whole Messi-v-Ronaldo debate feels tired. Juventus host Napoli on January 27 and thrash their rivals 4-1, a resounding and thoroughly deserved result made more painful for the visiting fans by Ronaldo’s significant contribution.
With the score 0-0 at the break, it is Ronaldo’s brace in the first 15 minutes of the second half that turns the game in the hosts’ favour. He assists two more. His bare chest and flexed muscles are scarred into the Napoli fans’ brains the next morning.
Messi looks lost and oddly small, pouting slightly as he gets substituted, again, in the 67th minute.
It’s pretty clear, with Juve five points top, which player is winning the challenge.
And then everything changes. As the Champions League kicks off again Ronaldo’s team are stretched to breaking point by the emotional toll of European competition as a 2-1 defeat at Bayern in the second round sees Juve fall to pieces domestically.
They lose three league matches on the spin, crumbling to a 2-1 defeat at home to Inter Milan, then 1-0 at Sampdoria, then 3-1 away to Atalanta; montages of Ronaldo sweeping both hands in the air in disgust or screaming into the night sky dominate TV broadcasts.
A 3-0 win against Bayern, plonked in the middle of this run, is, perhaps, the emotionally exhausting vortex to blame. Desperation for European success leaves Ronaldo in tears.
During that time Napoli keep grinding out results and Messi – quietly at first – starts to play with swagger. After going out to Manchester United in the second round of the Champions League, Ancelotti’s men begin a Messi-inspired sequence of 10 league wins in a row.
Ten: from March 18 right up until the penultimate day of the season. It’s as if Ronaldo’s frustration is nourishment for Messi’s soul.
It is an unrelenting, Rodgers’ Liverpool-esque sprint to the finish line that capitalises on the smallest of Juve errors.
Napoli’s sole focus on Serie A allows Ancelotti to ‘one-game-at-a-time’ his way through press conferences as Messi is let loose, while Ronaldo and company – clearly still distracted by Europe – draw 1-1 with AC Milan in a tie sandwiched between quarter-final matches against AS Monaco.
The final twist comes just three days before Juve’s semi-final first leg on April 27. They lose 2-0 at Torino, a local derby humiliation that opens the door for Napoli to beat Lazio 3-1 in Rome 24 hours later and effectively end the title race, going five points clear with three games left.
Juventus can’t recover, losing 3-0 to Manchester City in the Champions League as Ronaldo’s performances nose-dive. He watches helplessly on as Napoli beat Inter 2-1 in Naples to seal a first championship since the days of Diego Maradona.
They lift the Scudetto there and then, the camera panning to a delirious Maradona in the crowd. Old footage of El Diego beams around the world alongside heroic images of Messi’s campaign.
Is Messi as good as Maradona? Is this title win as special as Maradona’s? Is Maradona really that pleased about it? Does Messi think he’s better than Maradona? Everyone keeps saying Maradona and it gets really annoying.
How Ronaldo must regret issuing the challenge.
By Alex Keble