Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi... before it became all about the GOAT

A rivalry in the making PA Images via Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo v Lionel Messi. The grandfather of all footballing debates. As we take a break from live sporting action, we now have the chance to pause, reflect and enjoy the rivalry that has given us all so much joy over the years. Who is the GOAT? We may never know, but we sure can appreciate both of them.

In this series, we look back at the careers of Ronaldo and Messi, through the one aspect that separates them from all the rest. Their numbers. Today, that number is 1. The beginning. The firsts --

First match

Ronaldo: Sporting Club de Portugal v Inter Milan, 14 Aug 2002

A fairly dull trailer for the blockbuster that was to come. Ronaldo came off the bench against Inter in the 58th minute as the two teams played out a goalless draw in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League qualification round tie. (In the second, Inter would beat a Ronaldo-less Sporting at the San Siro 2-0 to advance to the tournament proper)

Messi - FC Barcelona v RCD Espanyol, 16 Oct, 2004

A similarly uneventful introduction. He replaced Deco in the 82nd minute, and pottered around the pitch for a bit as Barcelona saw off a quiet 1-0 league win.

First goal

Ronaldo - Sporting v Moreirense, 7 Oct 2002 Oh, what a fantastic goal. Ronaldo's early career belligerence on full display. He picks up the ball just past the centre-circle, glides past two challenges and throws another off with a quick step-over before powering into the box, sitting the keeper down and slipping it right past him with a cute little dink. This was on league debut, and he would go on and score one more (a powerful header, of course) in a comfortable 3-0 win.

CR28 was here to stay.

Messi - Barcelona v Albacete, 1 May 2005

There aren't many more iconic debut goals out there. Ronaldinho, King of the world at the time, lifts a delicious ball into Messi as the two play a give-and-go around two hapless Albacete defenders. Messi waits for it to drop, looks up, and calmly lifts it over the advancing goalkeeper. R10 then proceeds to give LM30 a piggyback ride, a mini lap of honour - Ronaldinho's way of introducing his heir apparent to the Camp Nou, and to the world.

First red

Ronaldo - Aston Villa v Manchester United, 15 May 2004

Ah, what a farcical sending off. Ronaldo was first booked in the 38th minute for what the referee adjudged to be a dive, well outside the Villa penalty box. (He did trip over his own leg). His second came after he shot at goal, after the whistle had gone for offside. Considering Manchester United were already winning 2-0, at that point...

Messi - Hungary v Argentina, 17 Aug 2005

Getting sent off on debut for Argentina is bad. Getting sent off a minute into that debut? Ouch. Messi comes on in the 64th of this international friendly, starts on one of his now trademark right-wing-to-penalty-box cut-ins, gets entangled with Vilmos Vanczák -- who goes down after a bit of pushing-shoving mid-dribble. Messi stops, presumably thinking the referee is going to give him a freekick for having his shirt pulled, but instead is shown a red for allegedly elbowing Vanczák, in the face.

Now, that's farcical.

First hat-trick

Ronaldo - Manchester United v Newcastle United, 12 Jan 2008

No one in the history of recorded football has scored more hat tricks than Ronaldo. His first, though, came quite late all things considered. Aged 23, The first is a cheeky free-kick, driven hard and low below a jumping wall. The second is a glorious team goal - Michael Carrick pings a pass into Wayne Rooney, who touches it to Carlos Tevez, who guides it perfectly into a rampaging Ronaldo, who kills it with his first touch and smacks it past Shay Given with his second. The hat-trick comes in the 88th minute. A half-blocked shot falls at his feet inside the box; he sits one defender down with a feint before smashing it in.

Messi - Barcelona v Real Madrid 10 Mar 2007

A hat-trick against Real Madrid as a 19-year-old. That's one way to tell the world that all the hype was for real. The first comes when Samuel Eto'o finds him with acres of space inside the Madrid box. One touch to control the ball, another to pass it past a hapless Iker Casillas. The second comes after a ludicrous Ronaldinho dribble and shot causes chaos in the Madrid box -- the shot is parried out to Messi who hammers it into the roof of the net on the volley. The third, ah, the third is classic Messi. Ronaldinho finds him with a superb pass, but surrounded by white shirts, he ignores three challenges (including a classic Sergio Ramos lunge) before hammering it past Casillas.

First match - against each other

Barcelona v Manchester United, 23 Apr 2008

UEFA Champions League semi-final, first leg. Walking into the game, Ronaldo had been third and Messi second in the voting for the 2007 Ballon D'Or (won by Kaka) and the pre-match hype was real. Neither had too many chances to score in the two-legged tie, though Ronaldo did miss an early penalty at Camp Nou. The first leg ended 0-0, the second 1-0 to United, Paul Scholes winning it with a 30-yard belter.

It is fitting, though, that the first match that pitted them against each other came toward the business end of the Champions League - the world's premier footballing tournament, one that they would soon bend to their individual will. The perfect platform for the launch of a rivalry that consumed world football for the last twelve years.