Messi, Ronaldo only need a moment to hurt you

06/23/2014 1:43 PM

06/23/2014 1:47 PM

( - There is little debate that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two greatest players in the world.

It only gets murky when you attempt to separate the two.

Both men have put together staggering resumes that would make CEOs envious, amassing a haul of team and individual awards that few on the international football stage can rival.

And the world does not need another discussion of which player is superior because, frankly, it's akin to ranking Victoria's Secret models: it's an argument that is the epitome of splitting hairs.

Instead, Messi and Ronaldo have demonstrated in the early stages of the 2014 World Cup what makes them so dangerous and why they both are a cut above the rest.

Messi has experienced nothing but success with Barcelona but has struggled to hit the same heights with Argentina, attaining only a FIFA U-20 World Cup triumph in 2005 and an Olympic gold medal in 2008 when suiting up for La Albiceleste.

Prior to 2014, his only goal in World Cup play came in garbage time of a 6-0 rout of Serbia and Montenegro in the group stage of the 2006 tournament. He entered the 2010 edition as one of the stars of the tournament but only played a minor role as Argentina fizzled out of the competition in the quarterfinals.

But Messi has made a bright start to the 2014 World Cup, scoring back-to-back game-winners to lift Argentina to the top of Group F.

The 26-year-old got off the mark against Bosnia-Herzegovina last week by capping a direct run at the defense with a sublime shot off the post and into the back of the net.

Both Messi and Argentina were held in check in Saturday's meeting with Iran, a match that was scoreless heading into the stoppage time. It looked as if the Iranians would mark the heroic performance with a well-earned point, but Messi spoiled the occasion by beating a defender at the corner of the penalty area and curling an inch-perfect shot with his favorite left foot into the far corner to seal a vital victory for Argentina.

Ronaldo's World Cup has not materialized nearly as well, though it is not without good reason.

The 29-year-old came into the tournament with a harrowing knee injury, one that had ailed him in the dwindling months of the lengthy club season. Add in Portugal's difficult draw into the tournament's "Group of Death" and you have a recipe for underachievement.

An abhorrent start to the World Cup saw Portugal suffer a 4-0 defeat to Germany last week. Ronaldo went missing in the match, but so did the entire Portuguese team (when they weren't getting injured or head-butting German players).

Ronaldo's injury appeared to worsen in the approach of Portugal's second match of the tournament as he often exited training sessions prematurely with ice smothering his bum knee, but he soldiered on and went the full 90 minutes against the United States.

It was another pedestrian performance from the Real Madrid man as Portugal, trailing the Americans deep into second-half stoppage time, was on the brink of a swift exit from the World Cup. Needing at least a draw to fight another day, Ronaldo popped up with 30 seconds remaining to produce his only meaningful contribution of the match, delivering one of the passes of the tournament to pick out Silvestre Varela with an exquisite cross. And the FC Porto man converted the chance, sending a powerful header past Tim Howard to earn a point for his side.

Portugal and Argentina have experienced vastly different results through two games of the tournament, but the play of their star men has been comparable. In short, they are clutch.

Messi made a minimal impact against Iran on Saturday, but he showed up in a big spot to deliver three points. His winner was a product of assessing the Iranian defense, anticipating where the space would open up and then exploiting that space to generate a shot. Messi's ruthlessness means that he only needs one opportunity to turn a match in favor of his team.

The same goes for Ronaldo, who was visibly debilitated by his knee injury. The Portuguese attacker was not his usual self against the United States as he struggled to accelerate and reach the top speed upon which his entire game is predicated. But he still had the final say in the result by producing just one moment of brilliance when it mattered most.

Throughout the affair, Ronaldo was kept in check by two or three American defenders that banded together to deny the Portuguese superstar the necessary space to operate. But with 30 seconds left and Portugal desperate for an equalizer, Ronaldo collected an outlet on the right flank and was staring down DaMarcus Beasley and only DaMarcus Beasley. The reigning Ballon d'Or winner recognized the one-on-one situation, as well as Varela streaking into an unguarded American penalty area, and took advantage, delivering a glorious cross to set up the tying goal.

What followed in the aftermath of the final whistle was a slew of American journalists and analysts dissecting the equalizer, assigning blame and rummaging for a way in which it could have been avoided.

But they neglected to acknowledge one thing: clutch players like Ronaldo and Messi only need a split second to hurt you.

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