One of the greatest rivalries in soccer history is set to resume at the unlikely venue of Riyadh’s King Fahd International Stadium.
The stage is set Thursday for Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo when Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain takes on a combined XI of Saudi Arabian teams Al Nassr and Al Hilal in an exhibition match.
Riyadh is where Ronaldo has decided to base possibly the final years of his storied career after signing a deal worth a reported $200 million-a-year to join Al Nassr.
The game against Messi and PSG offers a reminder of the Portugal international’s glory days before Ronaldo focuses on Al Nassr’s domestic title challenge and bid to qualify for the Asian Champions League.
The Messi-Ronaldo rivalry was never greater than when they played for Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively, and their scoring feats saw the players dominate Spanish and European soccer.
The showdown with Messi in these circumstances would have been unthinkable just a year ago when Ronaldo was still scoring with regularity for an albeit struggling Manchester United team.
Messi and Ronaldo have experienced vastly differing fortunes over the last 12 months. Messi finally won the World Cup with Argentina in December. Ronaldo was dropped by club and country, had his United contract terminated and eventually joined Al Nassr in one of the most surprising moves in soccer history.
It will be Ronaldo’s first action in Saudi Arabia after serving a two-match suspension issued by the English Football Association for slapping a mobile phone out of the hand of a fan after a match between Man United and Everton last April.
His debut for Saudi league leader Al Nassr is set for Sunday against Ettifaq.
Ronaldo will not be short on motivation when coming up against Messi and an all-star PSG team which could also include Kylian Mbappe and Neymar.
He has already been handed his trademark No. 7 shirt and the armband in what feels like a fitting way to kick off his latest adventure.
It will be a chance to make a statement against some of the best players in the world, as opposed to who he will face in the Saudi league, which represents a step down after his career in elite European soccer.
The 37-year-old forward, who was presented to Al Nassr’s supporters to great fanfare earlier this month, is facing questions over his ability to rediscover his form after a disappointing first half of the season for United and an underwhelming World Cup.
Ronaldo managed only three goals in 16 appearances for United before his explosive interview with Piers Morgan, in which he criticized manager Erik ten Hag and the club’s owners, led to the termination of his contract.
With an opportunity to put himself on the market at the World Cup, he was dropped by Portugal as his country suffered a shock elimination by Morocco in the quarterfinals and likely ended his last chance of winning the one major trophy that has eluded him. Ronaldo did become the first men’s player to score at five different World Cups.
Messi is also aiming to win back-to-back French league titles with PSG and could yet lead the Paris club to its first Champions League success.
While Ronaldo said he rejected offers from around the world to join Al Nassr, it is not known if any interest came from Europe’s biggest clubs.
The Saudi move is likely to take him out of the spotlight for the first time since he established himself in his first spell at United in 2003.
The Riyadh Season Cup, which is at stake on Thursday, will at least be an opportunity to showcase his talent in a match likely to attract widespread interest given his rivalry with Messi as the two finest players of their generation. Between them they have shared 12 Ballon d’Or awards — Messi seven, Ronaldo five.
Ronaldo has the edge in the Champions League, winning European club soccer’s biggest trophy five times, compared to Messi’s four.
In total they have won 56 major trophies between them, which has made it so difficult to separate them when trying to determine who is the greatest of their generation.
However, Messi’s inspirational performances in leading Argentina to the World Cup trophy in Qatar in December strengthens his case to have the edge on his great rival.
Nothing that happens on Thursday in Riyadh is likely to move the dial either way on that argument. It could, however, offer Ronaldo the chance to remind his doubters that he can still go toe-to-toe with Messi.
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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson