With the season reaching its business end, Lionel Messi has set alarm bells ringing: physically, he appears to be struggling a little bit. There's no need for full-on panic just yet, admittedly: yes, he had to sit out Argentina's two recent friendlies, including the clash with Spain in Madrid, and yes, he put in an unrecognisably innocuous display in Barcelona's Champions League first leg with Roma, which the Blaugrana ended up winning handsomely because, with Messi very much MIA, lady luck smiled on Ernesto Valverde's men with some fairly favourable refereeing and not one, but two own goals by the Italians. In between times, however, we saw him come on for the final half hour at Sevilla and turn the game around with a performance of verve, leadership and, with time almost up, precision finishing.
As Messi's fitness wobbles, Ronaldo's only getting stronger
Still, there's a noticeable contrast with Cristiano Ronaldo, who looks to be getting stronger and stronger as the season goes on. Having begun 2017/18 by missing several games due to his post-Super Cup ban, he was then unusually goal-shy for a number of weeks, and I'll admit it: I even began to have doubts about his future. I feared we were witnessing his terminal decline. His age - he's now 33 - and the drop-off in his strike rate certainly suggested as much. But it's safe to say he's rediscovered the scoring touch of old (one which, as the games grow in importance, seems to be all the deadlier), underlining his return to form with THAT overhead kick in Turin: a sublime effort that will go down as one of the greats, and has given us an image that will define his career. Of the 649 goals he's racked up, it's undoubtedly the pick.
Cristiano's return to form is no coincidence
There is, of course, a clear explanation for the Real Madrid star's upturn. Together with his coach, Zinedine Zidane, he is managing his body. Gone is the Cristiano who, in his obsession with getting the upper hand on Messi, simply had to play every single minute of every single game; now, it would appear, he has conceded that it is more sensible to save his strength for the final stages of the season - when, after all, silverware is up for grabs. Indeed, it turns out that Cristiano has played nine matches fewer than Messi so far this term. And, even though the Argentine is the younger of the two, it is showing. Both footballing geniuses, they also share a voracious appetite for the game, so it's no easy task persuading them to sit out matches here and there. Zidane is managing it, though, and is reaping the rewards.