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Ballon d'Or 2015: Why We've Witnessed the End of the 'Messi vs Ronaldo' Era

13/01/2016 17:38 GMT | Updated 13/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Hopefully we're all able to appreciate just how good Cristiano Ronaldo has been over the best part of the last decade.

The Portuguese captain is Real Madrid's all-time leading goalscorer and a two-time Champions League winner. He's won the hearts of a generation of Manchester United supporters, who were lucky enough to watch him blossom through to the immaculately-maintained peak years of his career.

He's been officially recognised as the world's best footballer three times over - once as a United player - scooping the Ballon d'Or in 2008, 2013 and 2014. But as long-term nemesis Lionel Messi took the stage to collect his fifth Golden Ball on Monday evening, Ronaldo could only watch on knowing that finally, he was deservedly beaten to it.

Ronaldo had intimated several times recently that he expected the Argentinian to wrestle the prize from his grasp. But perhaps he'd have never envisaged that his infamous 'SI!' moment at the 2014 Ballon d'Or celebration would turn into a signifier of his shelf-life at the top going down in a blaze of glory. Messi has since earned his prize back, and Ronaldo's performance levels have already started to fall. It's over.

But at least his Ronaldo biopic - in large part dedicated to his obsession with being the best - was put out there before it was too late.

More than eight years have passed since Ronaldo and Messi began to lock horns for the title of greatest player on the planet. It's turned into one of the most divisive debates the game has ever seen. Both players have hit levels previously unheard of in top level football, and have been head and shoulders above all others for a generation of fans who know no different.

Ronaldo, though, has perhaps benefitted from their relationship more than the Argentinian. Of the two, he's been the man motivated by recognition and fuelled by the genius of another. If you were looking to pluck out an example of nature versus nurture from the football world, this is it.

Their respective goal records are phenomenal. Ronaldo has already hit 500 across his entire career, and given Messi's continued level of performance you'd expect him to follow suit later this season. The Portuguese has a goal record superior to one-per-game in all-white, and 25 goals in 25 games so far this term. He wants another 500 before he retires.

Though there are a number of contributing factors to the beginning of Ronaldo's predicted decline. While he'll remain an intimidating physical specimen for the remainder of his career, his game has completely changed. Ronaldo will rarely unleash those twinkle-toes that drove him to prominence in his younger days.

In fact, Messi has completed more than three times as many take-ons in La Liga this season (​6​5 compared to 21​) in nearly half the minutes. Messi has spent a fair chunk of this campaign struggling with injury and falls behind on the goals registered, but Ronaldo has hit nearly twice as many shots as the Argentinian so far this season too.

Foremost on Ronaldo's mind is goals. But of his 25 so far in the current campaign, nine of them have come across two games against Malmo and Espanyol. Hardly difference-makers. He'll still score by the barrel-load and make a fair dent into that target of 500, but Ronaldo is going to become less of a central figure in the Spanish capital in the coming seasons.

Enter Gareth Bale. His performances have finally started to improve and he's starting to hit Ronaldo levels. If Ronaldo does - as Zinedine Zidane wishes - end up staying in Madrid for the long-term, he's going to have to make do with becoming something of a support act to the near-peaking Welshman. No matter how much he kicks and screams. Age does not lie.

And yes, Ronaldo will turn 31 in February. His peak days - in football terms at least - have come and gone, and while he'll remain one of the two greatest players of his generation, that number two will become as synonymous with Ronaldo as his CR7 brand.

With Bale, Luis Suarez and Neymar all closing in on or experiencing career highs, plus a host of other players narrowing the gap to the top, Ronaldo will find it tough to overhaul Messi or any number of new pretenders from here. Time, for once, is not on his side.

Make no mistake about it, Ronaldo has been a pleasure to watch, and he'll continue to be until he hangs up his boots and dives head-first into his post-football plans. He's easily in the top ten players of all time, and perhaps even in the top five. Yes, he's that good.

But his days have coincided with the peak years of the best player this game has ever seen.

And while Ronaldo has earned three Ballon d'Or titles across his trophy-laden career, he'll now have to settle for being second best for good. There's really no shame in that - but perhaps the biggest shame is we've never been able to see these two footballing icons play alongside each other.

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