Deposed Ronaldo aims to reclaim crown
There is little love lost between the two finest footballers on the planet and their fierce rivalry is on course to reach a defining showdown in 2010.
Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi make no secret of their desire to be recognised as the greatest player of their generation, so Real Madrid's £80m man will have taken little satisfaction in seeing his fierce rival from Barcelona take the honours at the FIFA World Player of the Year gala on Monday night.
Twelve months ago, it was Ronaldo being crowned as the game's king after he inspired Manchester United to Champions League glory in Moscow in 2008, yet Messi trumped his nemesis by completing a trophy clean sweep this year and now the stage is set for this brilliant duo to settle their score.
In truth, Ronaldo may well have been a step ahead of Messi in the second half of 2009 as he has scored a stunning 13 goals in his first 12 games for Real Madrid and yet he was gracious as he handed over the baton of greatness to Messi at the FIFA gala this week.
However, the Portuguese glamour boy is hoping the game's top personal prize is only in the hands of his rival on a temporary basis as with this season's Champions League finale taking place at Real Madrid's Bernabeu home, he is determined to secure his ticket to the biggest show in European football and expects to meet his old foe at the main gate.
"The Champions League finishes in Madrid this time, so it would be wrong if we are not there and let's see if Barcelona can attend the party," says a bullish Ronaldo. "They are the holders of the trophy and will expect to be in the final again so why not Real v Barca. I believe that by the time we reach the end of this season, Real Madrid will be very strong because we have come together in the space of a few months and already we have shown we are very close to Barcelona.
"They play some amazing football, but only the reason they are a little step ahead of us at the moment is they have been together for so long and are already a great team. That's where we want to be at Real Madrid and I know it will happen.
"I look at Manchester United, Chelsea and maybe Inter Milan as teams that could be in the Champions League final, but a lot of people will be hoping for Real Madrid against Barcelona. It would be amazing."
Ronaldo is polite as he acknowledges his respect for Messi after the Argentine's dream year was capped with a winning goal in the World Club Cup final last week, but he is already stating his intention to reclaim the title as the best in the game his time next year.
"Messi is a worthy winner this time because he won the Champions League as well as the Spanish title in 2009," concedes Ronaldo. "When I won everything with Manchester United a year ago, people said I deserved the FIFA prize, so now it's Messi's turn.
"I have no problem in saying he is a great player and it's natural that people try and build up a rivalry between us. The truth is I don't know him so well and it is hard to say what I feel about him as a person. All I know is he is a great footballer and he should be recognised as this. When we reach the end of 2010, hopefully I can be the one with all the prizes from this season and maybe I will have the FIFA title again."
With all five players in the running for this season's World Player of the Year award on the wage bill at either Real Madrid or Barcelona, there is little question that Spain's top two clubs have become the home to the most feared footballers in the European game and Ronaldo is convinced Real's rapidly assembled new side can emerge as major contenders in the second half of the campaign.
Any notion that his world record £80 million price tag would weigh down this sporting icon has been dispelled, with the leading scorer in this season's Champions League insisting he is relishing his new life away from the wind, rain and snow of what has been a freezing Manchester winter so far.
"Real Madrid has been as magical as I expect it to be and it has helped that the team we have has developed so quickly," adds Ronaldo. "I don't know if we can finish growing in time to win the big trophies this season, but it has to be the aim.
"As for my memories of Manchester, I have nothing but good things to say about the club and my amazing manager, Alex Ferguson. I can tell you now that I will never play for any other English club, which shows how much United will always mean to me. Going back to Old Trafford to play against them would not be easy, but I know it will probably happen one day. Still, this is for the future.
"There are some things about England that I have missed and the food is certainly one. I also love English music, though that can travel with me and I miss some of my friends at United.
"What I don't miss is the way players who like to perform for the pleasure of the fans are treated by English referees. I got kicked every weekend and some players were sent out just to try and stop me by hitting me as hard as possible.
"In Spain, attacking players are given more protection by the officials, but one thing that has surprised me is the attitude of the supporters in Madrid. They are not very understanding and one bad result seems to be treated as a disaster. The supporters at the Bernabeu expect the team to win every game and our job is to make their dreams come true."
If Ronaldo is playing the Champions League final on home turf next May, Real Madrid's journey back to the pinnacle of the game would be all but complete and few would be surprised if Messi and Barcelona are lying in wait to try and thwart their coronation.