Tomorrow’s Champions League tie between these two superpowers of world football has the potential to amaze and disappoint in equal measure. But, with the right ingredients, the pot could boil over, and much will depend on one key battle as two of the world’s form players go head to head.
The best player in the Premier League vs the best in the world? Whatever your feelings towards either, their impact on their respective clubs has been unquestionable. Robin van Persie has transformed from a talented yet injury prone striker into an unstoppable force.
His signing for Manchester United has edged them ahead of Manchester City and looks to have returned the league title to Old Trafford. Roberto Mancini professed his belief in this theory, saying he is the “difference between us”. The stats also reinforce this – 23 goals in all competitions is nine more than Javier Hernandez, with Wayne Rooney 10 behind the Dutchman.
The £24 million paid to Arsenal has been justified. As much as pundits and commentators like to proclaim Ronaldo’s importance to Madrid, the influence of Van Persie cannot be understated. Sir Alex Ferguson has likened this to Eric Cantona’s arrival which started United’s domestic dominance, and described his first season as “phenomenal”.
Last season criticism was levelled at the Red Devils for what some saw as an average squad, one that didn’t have the ability to compete with Europe’s best. Indeed, exiting at the Champions League group stage after losing 2-1 to Basel FC put fact to the conjecture. Conceding the title to Manchester City only exemplified this further.
But, rather than sit on what he had, Ferguson took action. The end result is the prospect of a 20th Premier League crown, and a legitimate chance of European success. In Van Persie they have a player they can rely on to produce quality in any area of the field. With his injury worries now behind him, he is cashing in on the opportunities afford to him by Rooney, Ryan Giggs and co.
Both he and Rooney make up a strikeforce that can punch through most rearguards, usually with fatal consequences for the opposition.
The subplot at the Bernabeu, however, is that the effectiveness of United’s threat will depend on how they stifle their once erratic and frustrating Portuguese wizard. With far too much gel in his hair, Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Carrington as a skinny and imperfect man. His elevation into one of the game’s greatest owes much to Ferguson’s management, particularly after the 2006 World Cup ‘wink’ which angered England fans. Rather than hiding, he blossomed.
Power, skill, speed, accuracy – he has them all, and then some. Goals came like confetti, as did the rumours of his desire to play for the Spanish giants.
The inevitability of his move did not damage his relationship with the manager or supporters, however. In fact, he seemed determined to win honour after honour in an ambition to become a legend. And he achieved it. In six seasons he amassed 117 goals in 290 games, winning the Champions League in 2008, alongside league titles, the FA Cup, League Cup, Player of the Year, Premier League Golden Boot and Champions League Top Scorer. Enough to fill even the most expansive of trophy cabinets.
But, his £80 million move to Madrid in 2009 has changed him. No longer is he a great player – he is part of the elite, one of the greatest in any period of time. How do you explain 182 goals in 179 games? Superhuman? Preposterous? Perhaps you can’t.
Gary Neville has called him a “monster”, but it is simpler to admire the effort and determination it takes to score 20 hat-tricks in under four years. Without the presence of Lionel Messi there would be no debate needed to decide the greatest.
In Madrid’s six Champions League group games he scored six goals and 22 league appearances have produced 24 goals. And, while football is a team sport, there is a sense the fortunes of Van Persie and Ronaldo could prove decisive. It should be a joyous occasion. One where two individuals will fight to scale the heights European competition.