Football Features

End of an era? Ronaldo joins Messi in successive Champions League last-16 exits

By Ben Green

End of an era? Ronaldo joins Messi in successive Champions League last-16 exits

Published: 22:13, 15 March 2022 | Updated: 23:27, 24 November 2022

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have both exited the Champions League at the last-16 stage for the second season in a row.

Messi came up short against Paris Saint-Germain in his final Barcelona season in 2020/21, and despite relocating to the French capital in the summer, fortune once again eluded him as old El Clasico rivals Real Madrid eliminated Mauricio Pochettino’s side from the competition, bruising plenty of inflated egos in the process.

Ronaldo, a hoarder of Champions League winner’s medals during his glittering career, followed suit with Juventus, who crashed out against Porto last campaign after a masterclass from Sergio Oliveira, while on Tuesday night it was an old El Derbi Madrileno rival who put him — and Man Utd — to the sword.

Atletico Madrid, in true Diego Simeone style, conformed to stereotype and produced a performance that has defined them since the arm-waving Argentine pitched up at the Vicente Calderon in 2011. Happy to allow Manchester United to hog possession, they sat deep, soaked up pressure and sprung relentless counter attacks.

On the night it was Renan Lodi’s rare finish that swung the tie in Atleti’s favour, nodding in on the far stick after some lovely build-up play from the travelling Spaniards. A Joao Felix flick played through Antoine Griezmann, who lofted a delectable, precise cross to far side of United’s penalty area, and Lodi was on cue to evade Diogo Dalot and head past David de Gea.

The footballing romantics may roll their eyes at the possessional statistics of Atleti, who registered a measly 39.9%, but this was peak Simeone, and as the old adage goes: the only statistic that matters is the one in the top-left of the screen: 0-1 to Atleti. 1-2 on aggregate.

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The inquest will naturally follow for Man Utd and further question marks with gravitate towards Ralf Rangnick, question marks that have dominated the narratives of every manager in the Old Trafford dugout since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013.

As for Messi, it was a night of chaos at the Bernabeu last week. Karim Benzema has continued to embellish his legacy as one of the greatest French footballers of all time, but Real’s 3-1 win over PSG last Wednesday was arguably his magnum opus, a moment of pure career-burnishing brilliance.

So, could there be an argument that we are coming towards the end of an era? For two seasons running now the Champions League, football’s greatest-ever club competition, will be without two of football’s greatest-ever players — and two of the game’s greatest clubs.

There could also be an argument that neither Ronaldo, nor Messi will be close to winning the next Ballon d’Or after the latest rule changes, which take into account the main European season (August to July) rather than the year. That means Ronaldo will likely go trophy-less in 2021/22 — barring a miraculous Premier League twist — which will be his first season without silverware since 2009/10, while Messi will only have a collection of (expected) domestic medals to right home about.

There can be no argument that both Messi and Ronaldo are on the wane, but that has simply been the unprecedented level of excellence they’ve set since bursting onto the scene all those years ago. They are not just the gold standard; they transcend any formula in which we measure the performances of players.

However, Ronaldo has now finally been knocked out by a Simeone side after years of tormenting the Atleti coach, who no doubt wakes up in a cold sweat thinking about the Portuguese’s countless strikes against his team, while Messi has simply looked a shadow of his former self for much of the career.

The Champions League will once again feel empty without Ronaldo and Messi lighting up our screens.