"Lionel Messi doesn't have the energy he had when he was 20 years old, nor does he have a magic wand to ensure his team qualifies. He has lost spontaneity and strength in his dribbling.”
Raymond Domenech, 8 March 2017
Messi on 9 March 2017: Scores one and is instrumental in two more as Barcelona beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1, making UEFA Champions League history.
"There were times when Cristiano Ronaldo’s team led 4-0 and he still wanted to score two goals so badly… But that's over now."
Bernd Schuster, 11 April 2017
Ronaldo on 18 April 2018: Scores in his 13th successive game, netting his 24th goal during that period.
People have wanted to be the first to flag the end of the Messi and Ronaldo dynasties for some time. When staggering performances have been handed out on a near-weekly basis for over a decade, a fallow month can seem like an eternity.
However, with the pair still on top of Spain's La Liga scoring charts, and Ronaldo leading the way in the Champions League, their supremacy is far from over. But, at 30 and 33 respectively, time is inevitably running out for the pair to add the FIFA World Cup™ to their heaving trophy cabinets.
With both heading to their fourth finals, will they find success in Russia, and what are their hopes should they not be standing at the top of the podium on 15 July?
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid and Portugal)
Achievements: FIFA Club World Cup 2017 winner, Spanish Supercopa winner, UEFA Super Cup winner, UEFA Champions League finalist
Lionel Messi (Barcelona and Argentina)
Achievements: La Liga winner, Copa del Rey winner
In their favour
Ronaldo has undergone a clear transformation over the last season or so, with his all-action status being pragmatically swapped out for more of a penalty-box finisher role. Having arguably not had a clinical striker since Pauleta hung up his boots after Germany 2006, Ronaldo focusing solely on this task could be a major benefit for the European champions.
Even without Messi, Argentina would arguably have the most overflowing array of resources when it comes to attacking talent. Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi would walk into most teams, so with such a varied array of forwards, the pieces are there to craft a devastating frontline if Jorge Sampaoli can get the balance right.
Where they have fallen before
2006: Semi-final, 1-0 v France
2010: Round of 16, 1-0 v Spain
2014: Group stage
2006: Quarter-final, 1-1 (4-2 PSO) v Germany
2010: Quarter-final, 4-0 v Germany
2014: Final, 1-0 AET v Germany
What awaits in Russia
Both will be confident of moving beyond the group stages, but neither has an entirely straightforward opening trio of games. Portugal start with a mouth-watering meeting against neighbours Spain which, should Ronaldo and Co stumble in, will leave them needing to make up ground fast against Morocco and IR Iran.
Argentina meanwhile will face a much more even selection, on paper at least, with Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria all well capable of stealing points from the group favourites – particularly given La Albiceleste’s suspect rearguard. A 6-1 defeat by Spain in March exposed that in spectacular fashion.
However, should both top their groups and escape the Round of 16, a Ronaldo-Messi quarter-final awaits in Sochi on 7 July.
What does history say?
Some may argue putting Messi and Ronaldo in the frame of their predecessors, considering their unparalleled feats when it comes to goalscoring and record-breaking, is fundamentally flawed. However, no one can fully repel the march of time, no matter how expertly they look to adapt with it. After this World Cup, both players will be defying the numbers again should they triumph at Qatar 2022, with Messi and Ronaldo set to be 35 and 37 respectively when that edition begins.
Since 1930, 422 players have been members of a World Cup-winning squad. Of those, only seven have been over 35. Just two of that seven haven’t been in goal.
Nilton Santos incredibly played every game for a triumphant Brazil in 1958 and 1962, despite being their oldest player at both tournaments. He was 37 when they lifted the trophy in Chile. A little more recently, Miroslav Klose was 36 when his two goals at Brazil 2014 helped Germany to victory. This suggests that the prospects of either Messi or Ronaldo ending their wait in Qatar are slim.
While no-one would write off either player defying the numbers once again in four years’ time, Russia 2018 seems likely to represent these modern-day icons' last shot at football’s biggest prize while at the top of their game.