Sid Lowe weighs in:
It is true that what makes Messi appear so remarkable are his headline skills. He has a ridiculous number of goals -- 70 in his last 72 games. He has also outdribbled Ronaldo this season, completing 50 successful dribbles to the Portuguese's 30. But it is not about that. It is about the other things. All the other things. It is about the fact that, contrary to the assumptions that Messi is a player who only does the extraordinary, he does the simple things, too. Messi, in short, can play. When Ronaldo is no longer an athlete, he will probably not be much of a player. Messi will.
Monday was no one-off. If you really want to run through a checklist, try a list that's based not on arbitrary marks but actual statistics. This season, Messi has provided 27 assists, seven of them leading to goals. Ronaldo has provided 22, four of them leading to goals. Messi provides a goal every 147 minutes to Ronaldo's 307. Messi has completed 590 passes to Ronaldo's 429. Messi has delivered 105 bad passes to Ronaldo's 159. Messi gives the ball away less often, too. Ronaldo has delivered 45 balls into the area and Messi has delivered 64. Of those, Ronaldo has found his target four times, Messi 60 times.
In total, Messi has tried 695 passes and completed 590 to Ronaldo's 588 and 429. He is involved all over the pitch; his "action areas" are more varied. He participates in moves more often, starts more plays and has more total "actions" in a game than Ronaldo. As for that often eulogized quality known as fight, the cojones stereotype of which English commentators, in particular, are so fond: Messi has even committed more fouls, robbed more balls and won more possession than Ronaldo.
At this point, it seems hard to find anyone outside of Madrid and Portugal who will take the position that Ronaldo is the better player. I’d like to say that I was right side of history, but it’s just as easy to say that I’m a Cule making the case that our player is better than their player. The question that Sid Lowe doesn’t address (and possibly because it’s hard as hell to evaluate) is what role one should assign to coaching and teammates. Messi plays in front of the other two finalists for the Ballon D'Or, two superlative midfielders who supply him with the ball. Messi is playing in the system in which he has flourished since he was a youth team player and he’s playing for a coach who is himself a product of that system. In watching college football, we’ve learned about system quarterbacks, guys who look great because they are in the right system with the right coach and the right teammates. I’m not saying that Messi is Danny Wuerrfel, but it is possible that he’s Cam Newton: a superlative player who wouldn’t be where he is without his surrounding environment.
The counter to this argument might be that Ronaldo wouldn’t fit in the Barca system. Messi fits, both in terms of his style of play and his unassuming personality. It’s hard to picture Ronaldo playing the same role, given his preference for doing his own thing. The great counter-factual from the debate is this: what if Messi would have come up at Sporting Lisbon and Ronaldo would have come up at La Masia? This question would get into psychology and adolescent development, so maybe Sid Lowe wouldn’t be the right guy to tackle it, but it would be a gem of an article, right?