Argentina's Lionel Messi scores his first goal against Uruguay's goalkeeper Fernando Muslera during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Mendoza October 12, 2012.
(Photo : REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian (ARGENTINA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP))
After last Sunday's Clasico, it was clear that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo remained as the only true contenders for the Ballon D'Or 2012. Many expected the rivalry to be magnified as the two players returned to their national teams to help in the World Cup Qualifiers, but after one match one player resumes the lead for the year's best player award.
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Both players had their most difficult challenge on Friday as Ronaldo's Portugal took on Russia and Messi's Argentina renewed its rivalry with Uruguay. Ronaldo had his shot at the spotlight first against Russia but blew it. Russia scored in minute six and held on to beat Portugal 1-0. Ronaldo was rather invisible for much of the game as his teammates were ineffective at penetrating a disciplined Russian defense. Ronaldo had one chance in the second half but the ball came up to high on him and he would end up shooting it over the net. In another chance, Ronaldo was few feet away from goal but he was unable to seize the ball as a defender kicked it out of bounds.
Ronaldo gets another chance to redeem his play against a rather weak Northern Ireland, but his performance during this week's biggest game for his country was far from exemplary.
Meanwhile Messi continued his dominant display in the 'skyblue and white' tallying 11 goals in eight games for Argentina so far this year. Uruguay and Argentina have long been among the best teams in the CONMEBOL and both teams were among the tops in the qualifying table. Uruguay needed this match more than Argentina who continues leading the table with 17 points.
Uruguay played well but their weak defense was exposed by strong Argentine passing in the box during the 66th minute as Angel Di Maria made a pass through a defender's legs toward the goalie Fernando Muslera. It looked like a weak shot that was headed right to Muslera but Messi slid in at the last second and touched the ball into the net to give Argentina a 1-0 lead.
After that Messi found a breaking Di Maria on the left flank with a gorgeous elevated pass. Di Maria then crossed it to Sergio Aguero for a spectacular finish past Muslera. Messi then finished the game with another revelatory strike. On a free kick in the 81st minute, the star set another opportunity.
Everyone has witnessed the tremendous elevated blast the young striker is capable of but this time Uruguay players who jumped up to block Messi's kick found themselves fooled as the Argentine captain kept the ball low. The sphere rolled under the jumping players and into the Uruguayan net. That capped off a tremendous span of 15 minutes in which Argentina took over a tied match. And Messi was the catalyst of the result.
Argentina takes on Chile on Tuesday. A few weeks ago that match would have been an enormous task for Argentina, but with Chile looking weak in their last few qualifying matches ( two 3-1 losses to Colombia and Ecuador), Argentina will likely face a lesser challenge than against their Uruguay counterpart. It also helps to know that no matter the result on Tuesday, they will still be among the top three in the qualifiers with no less than a 2 point cushion.
The Friday matches gives Messi and edge on Ronaldo, but the Portuguese player can make up ground with a dominating match that features him in the same light as with Messi against Uruguay. If Ronaldo cannot answer the call and plays the same way he has in the last two qualifiers (0 goals), then he will have to make up substantial ground in La Liga by outplaying and outscoring Messi definitively in order to secure the award. If none of these factors happens, then Messi should easily win the award for the fourth straight year.