Players who can take control of a game and wrestle it the way of their team at the highest level are rare in the modern game. But at their absolute pomp, it’s exactly what Lionel Messi did for Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo did for Real Madrid.

The former has been at the hub of all of Barcelona’s delightful attacking work over the last decade. Messi’s burst of speed, stunning dribbling ability and propensity for staying calm in the final third has seen him decimate defense after defense down the years.

Ronaldo has had a similar effect on matches, although in a different style. In the early years of his Madrid career, the Portuguese would tear inside from the left flank with blistering pace, beat defenders with a variety of skills and thud shots at goal. That acquiescence of physicality and panache has been uncontainable.

Both have been a force of nature and playing for the two biggest clubs in the world, who so happen to be huge rivals, naturally comparisons have been triggered. Indeed, factions of fans will vehemently argue the case for one over the other on in bars, at the match, on social media or in the comments section of pieces about the pair.

In the past the comparisons have been fair. Both men operated in a similar area of the field, after all, so it was easy to contrast displays as well as facts and figures delineating the impact of each. But over the past couple of seasons, contrasts between the two men seem to be increasingly futile in every sense aside from the fact they’re the respective talisman for their team.

Match: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid
Kickoff: Saturday, 10:15am ET
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That’s because the games of Messi and Ronaldo have evolved and are evolving. The former, used on the right flank by manager Luis Enrique, is doing more and more of his work on the ball further away from the goal.

“All the time he’s becoming more of a midfielder than an attacker,” said Barca midfielder Denis Suarez of his team-mate recently. “He is incredible. Every day he demonstrates that he’s the best. In training he does things that amaze you.”

Ronaldo, on the flipside, is moving further and further up the pitch. In Madrid’s 2013-14 UEFA Champions League winning season the former Manchester United man was used in a front two alongside Karim Benzema and since then, Ronaldo’s most striking work has come inside the box rather than on the flank.

On paper, he will usually be the man on the left wing for Los Blancos. But it’s rare to see Ronaldo maintain width on that side of the field and bring out the stepovers he was so synonymous with early in his career; he’s the man typically infield, looking to get on the end of crosses in the style of a true No. 9.

Against Atletico Madrid in the recent derby tussle Ronaldo reaped the benefits of operating in this role. With the likes of Isco, Lucas Vazquez and Gareth Bale in the attacking midfield positions, he was allowed to prowl in advanced areas. It meant while his influence in general play was minimal, his impact on the contest, scoring three goals, was enormous.

Of course, as every player moves into the twilight of their career, adjustments need to be made to their game and typically the very best harness their best attributes for longevity. Messi and Ronaldo seem to be in the midst of that process.

Of the two players, Messi, two years Ronaldo’s junior, is the man most likely to take hold of a game and swing it Barcelona’s way in times of adversity at the moment. His tendency to drop deep, link play and propel Barcelona forward remains. The Portuguese, as superb a goalscorer as he is, is becoming increasingly reliant on the service that he receives from team-mates.

There will come a day when Messi can’t be quite as widespread in his influence on matches too and it’ll be fascinating to see where he lines up in this Barcelona team in five years time.

It’s intriguing to ponder how these players operate in the latter years of their career too, especially given Ronaldo has just agreed a new five-year contract with Los Blancos and Messi is said to be close to signing a similar deal with the Blaugrana.

The extraordinary talents possessed by each means it’d be no surprise if they were to continue dominating the football landscape into their mid-to-late thirties and it’s clear their clubs have faith the pair can lead their respective teams to many more glories in the future.

But what’s clear is that after so many years of producing similarly mesmeric moments, if Messi and Ronaldo are to remain significant at the summit of world football, they’re going to do so in very different ways.

Some would say the stylistic gap between the two players has always been a significant one, but in the last two seasons it’s been widening. After almost a decade of fiery collations, it’s a shift that could finally bring an end to the tireless comparisons between these two titans of modern sport.

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Match: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid
Kickoff: Saturday, 3:15pm GMT
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