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Ronaldo, Messi set lofty standard

Madrid had just beaten Auxerre in the Champions League, but Ronaldo had not scored. Just as he had not scored -- at least not from open play -- in Madrid's first five league matches. His return was disappointing: a solitary penalty in an uninspiring win over Espanyol. And although the sports daily Marca said he had another goal, his free kick against Real Sociedad had been officially given to Pepe, who had inadvertently deflected the ball high over the keeper and into the net.

Ronaldo also hadn't scored in Madrid's previous Champions League game, against Ajax. In fact, he had swung wildly and air-balled a glorious chance from barely a couple of yards. It was an incredible, almost comic miss.

He was shooting often enough -- too often -- but mostly wildly, uncontrollably. He had fired off more than 50 shots in his first four league games alone. But still he had scored just once and from the spot -- a goal he barely celebrated. The media were convinced there was something wrong. One word slipped into their lexicon and they simply couldn't avoid it. Ansiedad. Anxiety. He was nervous, not right, edgy. Anxious. Ronaldo had had enough. And here was the evidence. Departing l'Abbé Deschamps, he snapped, "F------ anxiety!"

For some, it proved that he was indeed anxious. For others, it showed just how absurd the campaign had become, with its overanalyzing and cod psychology. Maybe they were both right. Coach Jose Mourinho certainly was. After a 0-0 draw with Levante three days before the Auxerre match, he made a promise. Madrid was not scoring but, Mourinho said, it would soon; someone would, as the Spanish phrase has it, "pay for the broken plates."

Deportivo de La Coruña paid. Then Málaga paid, then Racing, then Hércules. Milan, too. Madrid smashed Deportivo 6-1, Racing 6-1 and Málaga 4-1. It comfortably defeated Milan 2-0 in the Champions League (the teams then played a 2-2 draw in Wednesday's second leg). Ronaldo scored one and made the other in the first meeting with Milan. He scored four against Depor, two against Racing, two against Malaga and two against Hércules in a 3-1 victory. He got two more playing for Portugal. Anxiety? What anxiety? The headlines were rather different now. Ronaldo was a "machine." Never mind the opponents, he was Hercules.

He scored 13 times in October and became the first Real Madrid player to score at least two goals in four consecutive matches. He has 11 league goals (12 if you include the one against Real Sociedad) through nine weeks, up from five at this time last season. No one has a record this good this early since 1950. He is on course to break the club record of 38 goals for the season. Maintain the same rate and he might reach 46.

It was not just this season's start, either. Added to last season, when he had 26 goals in 29 league games, he has scored 41 in his first 42 league games for Real Madrid, 38 in his last 38 and 46 in 49 games overall. He is running at a better goals-per-game ratio than Ferenç Puskas and Alfredo Di Stéfano, let alone Ronaldo, Hugo Sánchez, Raúl or Carlos Santillana. Not only that, he is tied for the league lead in assists, with four.

The newspaper El Mundo, not normally among the most delirious of cheerleaders, described him as a "21st-century Di Stéfano." Coming from a Spanish newspaper, there is no greater compliment.

He was, in short, the best player in the world.

Or he would be, but for one thing. One man. Leo Messi. Because if Ronaldo's figures are pretty silly, over on the other side of Spanish football's great divide, Messi's figures are almost as good. Or perhaps they are as good. Or perhaps they are even better. Where you stand on that debate depends largely on which side of the divide you stand: Few in Catalunya have any doubt, few in Castilla do either.

Maybe it doesn't even matter -- the endless and yet oddly immovable "debate" is often tedious while the arguments used to win it can be devastatingly devious and downright depressing. Bias is not the half of it. One thing's for sure: They are both very, very special.

On the same day that Ronaldo got two goals against Hércules, Messi got two against Sevilla. Just as he got two the week before versus Zaragoza -- against whom, last season, he scored a second successive hat trick and a barely believable one at that. In the next game, he scored against Copenhagen in the Champions League. It made him the highest scorer in Europe's premier competition in club history. It was his 100th goal under Pep Guardiola. In just 114 games.

Messi has missed two games because of injury -- against Athletic Bilbao and Sporting Gijón -- so through Week 9, with Ronaldo on 11, he is on 7, in seven games. While Ronaldo's recent flurry has come against Deportivo, Racing, Málaga and Hércules (and earlier Espanyol) -- two of the bottom three and all of them in the bottom half -- Messi's has come against top eight clubs in Mallorca, Sevilla and Valencia (and earlier Atlético).

Since the start of last season, Messi has scored 41 league goals in 42 games, exactly the same number as Ronaldo. He has five goals in the Champions League, four more than Ronaldo. Last season, Messi got eight in 11 Champions League games; Ronaldo got seven in six. In all competitions this season, including the Super Cup, Messi has scored 14 in 12 games. In total, Messi has scored 62 in his last 62 competitive games for Barcelona.

Whichever way you look at it, the figures are incredible, maybe even vaguely absurd. Embarrassing for everyone else.

And "figures" is the word. With every passing day, Ronaldo and Messi dominate the agenda more and more. It is as if they are feeding off each other, the challenge pushing them on, the intense focus and speculation -- crisis, analysis and panic when it goes wrong, deification and beseeching when it goes right -- breathing even greater significance into already astonishing achievements.

The media have always tended to reduce everything, to boil it down, to simplify it, to be sucked in by the spotlight -- and, when it comes to players, no spotlight shines brighter than the one on these two. (Mourinho, though, is another issue altogether -- an astonishingly dominant focal point, utterly unprecedented for a manager.) It is as if, however unfair it may be -- after all, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, and David Villa; Xabi Alonso, Ángel Di María, and Gonzalo Higuaín are hardly bad players -- everyone else is being eclipsed.

Everyone else? Every thing else.

Messi and Ronaldo have become a new invocation of an age old battle, a Manichean view at the expense of all else -- all nuance and gray area, all bit parts and supporting casts are obliterated. So dominant, so brilliant, so ridiculously superior are Messi and Ronaldo that they are fast becoming the personification of Spain's traditional dichotomy, the sole representatives of the clash of empires. New, seemingly invincible warriors for an old war.

So accustomed is Spanish football to turning everything into a straight fight between good and evil, sunshine and shadow, into a battle of biblical proportions that will reverberate around the ages, that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have become Real Madrid and FC Barcelona made flesh.