Portuguese superstar spot-on to win latest installment of Messi rivalry

Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo offers a handshake to arch-rival Lionel Messi of Barcelona before their UEFA Champions League match at Camp Nou on Tuesday. Ronaldo netted twice in a 3-0 win for Juve, which advances to the last 16 as Group G winner. [Photo/Agencies]

BARCELONA-Not once, but twice Cristiano Ronaldo leapt, twisted and landed with both arms thrust downward as if he were driving a flag into conquered terrain at Camp Nou.

Ronaldo celebrated after scoring two penalties to lead Juventus to a 3-0 win at Barcelona on Tuesday, one-upping Lionel Messi in the renewal of the head-to-head match-up between the two greatest players of their generation.

No team that had come to play at Messi’s Barcelona had left with a victory in over seven years in the Champions League.

The commanding win in the last game of the group phase let Juventus clinch first place in Group G on a better head-to-head record with Barca after both finished level on 15 points. Both teams had already comfortably qualified for the next stage prior to the match.

Ronaldo, 35, and Messi, 33, both played like this could be the last time they face off in an illustrious rivalry that lit up the Spanish league for nearly a decade before Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Italian giant Juve in 2018.

“I have always had a cordial relationship with Messi,” Ronaldo told Movistar after the game. “As I have said before, for 12, 13, 14 years (I have been) sharing prizes with him.

“I never saw him as a rival. He always tried the best for his team and I tried the best for mine. I always got on well with him. I am sure he will say the same if you ask him. But we know in football people always look for a rivalry to create more excitement.”

Ronaldo converted spot-kicks for the 13th-minute opener and a third goal early in the second half after Weston McKennie had doubled the advantage in the 20th.

Messi and Ronaldo briefly embraced with one arm behind each other’s back and exchanged a few words before kickoff at a stadium that remains empty because of coronavirus restrictions.

While Ronaldo benefited from errors by Barcelona’s defense, Messi was left to carry the workload for the frustrated host. The Argentina forward was unable to beat Gianluigi Buffon on his five shots on target.

“We started poorly, with fear and without any sense of aggression. It was like we didn’t want to lose the match instead of wanting to win it,” Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman said. “We lost the match in the first half hour.”

In the team’s first group game in October, Messi scored in a 2-0 win in Turin with Ronaldo unable to play after he tested positive for COVID-19.

Including matches with Ronaldo at Manchester United and two friendlies between Argentina and Portugal, Messi and Ronaldo have now faced off 36 times. Messi has won 16 times and Ronaldo 11 with nine encounters ending in a draw. Messi has scored 22 goals and Ronaldo 21 in those games.

Ronaldo struck first from the penalty spot following a shoulder-to-shoulder collision with defender Ronald Araujo in the area. He coolly drilled his penalty down the center as Marc-Andre ter Stegen dived to his left.

Juve doubled its advantage when an unmarked McKennie-an American midfielder who is on loan from German side Schalke-volleyed home a Juan Cuadrado cross.

Messi tried his best to rally Barca, but another defensive blunder sent Ronaldo back to the penalty spot in the 52nd after a video review showed that Lenglet had handled in the area. Ronaldo’s 14th career goal at Camp Nou put Juventus into first place.

“We committed mistakes that just can’t happen,” Ter Stegen said about his team’s defense, which was missing veteran Gerard Pique through injury.

“There are two things, the individual mistakes and the way we are defending. When we let our focus slip, we concede goals. We have to be stronger, do our homework and continue to work hard.”

Messi exchanged his shirt with Buffon after the final whistle. Ronaldo had already been substituted in the final minutes and congratulated by Juve coach Andrea Pirlo.

Barcelona’s record of 38 home games without a loss in Europe’s top-tier tournament began in September 2013.

The loss adds to a growing list of disappointing results for a team that, thanks to Messi, had dominated European soccer for a decade-until a steady decline that hit rock bottom in an 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals last season. Since Koeman arrived to rebuild the team, it has struggled above all in the Spanish league, where its haul of 14 points from 10 games is its lowest since La Liga adopted three points for a win in 1995-96.

It also does nothing to give any hope to Barca fans that Messi has changed his mind about leaving his club of 20 years next summer when his contract expires.

AP