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Daily Mirror
Daily Mirror
Ben Husband

Cristiano Ronaldo given clear sign of new Lionel Messi reality despite goalscoring debut

In Cristiano Ronaldo’s head, this will be remembered as vindication of his controversial Saudi Arabia move.

His formal unveiling as an Al-Nassr player was a glitzy affair, filled with fireworks, fans and all the pomp and majesty he would demand. But as he made clear so often in his opening remarks, this was a move with football at its centre.

"In Europe, my work is done. I've won everything. I've played in the most important clubs in Europe. And now for me is a new challenge," he said in typically self-deprecating fashion. "I am a unique player. I have broken all the records in Europe and I want to break them here too. This contract is unique because I am a unique player, so it's normal.”

Having been made to wait to make his debut for Al-Nassr, Ronaldo’s first game in the country came as part of an ‘All Star XI’ taking on Paris Saint-Germain - and ironically his old rival Lionel Messi.

The two footballing behemoths have been inextricably linked for the last 15 years, obsessively compared and fiercely debated. And like his parade in front of fans, this was another glitzy star-studded affair, with Ronaldo scoring twice in a thrilling encounter which finished 5-4 to the French champions.

Make no mistake though, despite his brace, Ronaldo is no longer the main attraction. Instead he was part of the welcoming party for one of the world’s best clubs. A tune-up opponent for a PSG team focusing on conquering Europe for the first time.

Just six months ago, the 37-year-old made it clear to agent Jorge Mendes that he wanted a move to the Champions League - the tournament he still holds the goalscoring record in. Manchester United ’s failure to finish in the top four was given as the primary reason for his unhappiness at Old Trafford.

His 140 goals in Europe’s top competition is 11 in front of his oldest foe, who looks set to remain at the pinnacle of the game for at least another year. And Ronaldo helped the World Cup winner get back up to speed for when the real stuff resumes next month.

It took less than five minutes for Messi to coast behind Ronaldo’s All Star colleagues to fire PSG in front. But unlike the 36 times the pair have faced off previously, it was clear this now meant very little to the Argentinian magician.

It was a different story for Ronaldo though, who played as if his reputation depended on it. Scoring twice and celebrating each like it was a last-minute winner in the Premier League or La Liga.

Ultimately though, this was an exhibition match in every sense of the word, “a reminder that Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing efforts are still operating at full throttle,” Peter Frankental, Amnesty UK’s economic affairs director said.

But for Ronaldo, it was also a glaring reminder of his new footballing reality. The £173m-per-year contract will be sweet consolation, but as he faced off against Messi, Kylain Mbappe and Neymar for what could be the last time, there may have been a nagging sense of regret.

This was like the Harlem Globetrotters coming to town, but for the first time since United visited Lisbon to play Sporting in 2003, Ronaldo was playing the part of a Washington General. His Al-Nassr debut - against Ettifaq this weekend - will still be big news. But how long that interest lasts remains to be seen.

Even in a game billed as Ronaldo's introduction to the country, it was Messi's name being chanted by the sparse crowd within the King Fahd Stadium. Messi ended 2022 by winning the biggest prize in international football. This year will see him almost certainly win another Ballon d’Or and remain at the centre of the footballing world.

As for Ronaldo, a player desperate to be seen as unique, he now faces a battle to stay relevant among the current crop of global superstars.

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