On Tuesday, Juventus might overcome a 2-1 deficit against Porto in the Champions League. On Wednesday, Barcelona almost certainly won’t come back from 4-1 down to beat Paris Saint-Germain. Both clubs were comprehensively outplayed in the first legs, both are burdened by an ageing and expensive superstar, both have found the cracks in their financial planning exposed by the pandemic. At some point the narratives of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will decouple, but not now, not yet.

Football deals badly with mortality. It can be brutal in dealing with those with whom it has finished. Bill Shankly couldn’t even tell Ian St John to his face when, after eight years, the time came to drop him. After 11 golden years, Nobby Stiles wasn’t given a testimonial by Manchester United. West Ham reneged on a deal to let Bobby Moore leave on a free transfer. As the former Coventry and Derby manager Harry Storer once told Brian Clough, in football “nobody ever says thank you”.

But, at the same time, there is a bizarre willingness to believe in the cult of the winner, the idea that because a player or manager has done something before, he will necessarily be able to do it again – see, for example, the recent career of José Mourinho.

Barça’s plight is worse than Juve’s, but it is probably more understandable. Messi is their player and has been for 21 years. How could anybody ever decide it was the right moment to sell somebody who was not just for a long time the best player in the world but was also family? But Messi is not the best player in the world any longer, far from it.

From 2017, when they lost 4-0 away to PSG and 3-0 at Juve, it was clear Barça had a fundamental problem. Against high-class opposition, their midfield became stretched.

Every year since there has been a reminder: 3-0 to Roma in 2018, 4-0 to Liverpool in 2019, 8-2 to Bayern Munich in 2020, 4-1 to PSG three weeks ago.

In part that is the result of an ageing and slowing midfield, but it is not just that, perhaps it is not even mainly that. It’s also to do with a forward line that puts almost no pressure on the ball, something that is integral to the Cruyffianism that underpins Barcelona’s identity.

In 2009-10, Messi averaged 2.1 tackles and interceptions per league game; this season that is down to 0.7 (despite Barça having far less of the ball now and so need to win it back more). His brilliance may at times paper over the cracks, but then he is often also the cause of them. He is 33. He needs to conserve energy. He probably would not score or set up so many goals if he were making tackles.

Maybe it is still worth accommodating him, making the compromises – but doing so is costing a base £28.5m salary a year, with bonuses that can multiply that figure almost by four. As the arrests of four directors this week make clear, Barça’s financial problems go far beyond what they are paying Messi, but he does represent an enormous drain on a club that is £1.1bn in debt.

Messi chases down Ronaldo during Juventus’s 3-0 win at Barcelona in December that clinched the Italian side a place in the Champions League knockout phase.
Messi chases Ronaldo during Juventus’s 3-0 win at Barcelona in December that clinched the Italian side a place in the Champions League knockout phase. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

Juventus fastened the albatross around their own necks. The decision in 2018 to buy a 33-year-old Ronaldo for near enough £100m was bewildering. The rationale was that his goals would carry a side that had twice lost in Champions League finals in the previous five years the extra step to glory. But he presses even less than Messi – 0.4 tackles and interceptions per league game this season – and that runs against modern tactical thought and what Andrea Pirlo appears to be trying to do.

With Ronaldo, Juve have lost to Ajax in a Champions League quarter-final and to Lyon in the last 16. They feel further away from European success than before he was signed. Perhaps they will beat Porto. Knockout football can be a curious thing; it’s possible Ronaldo could somehow pull off one last job and bring the Champions League to Turin. But there was little at the Estádio do Dragão to suggest that is likely.

Like Messi, Ronaldo earns vast bonuses but what is striking is that his base salary of £28m a year is greater than the sum of the next four highest-paid players in the squad (and, so broken are football’s finances, of the entire squads of four Serie A clubs). That has restricted investment and Juve’s debts are now around £350m.

The pandemic has increased the financial pressure. Barcelona’s losses last year were £73m, Juventus’s £68m. There is a global squeeze, exemplified by the winding up of the Chinese champions, Jiangsu. “It’s a reality check for football as well as for China,” said Peter Frankopan, the professor of global history at Oxford University and an expert on China.

It’s not just that a weakening Chinese market lessens the options for big clubs to offload expensive talent. Jiangsu’s parent company, Suning, which also owns Internazionale, was carrying significant debt at a time when the Chinese leadership has become wary about excessive loans.

“The plug being pulled is partly about conserving cash and focus on the core business,” said Frankopan, “but in part too about falling into line with expectations of how businesses behave in China.”

The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

Frankopan pointed out the potential knock-on impact not only for Inter (losses last year of £85m) but also for the Premier League given the Suning-owned PPLive was behind China’s cancelled broadcast rights deal worth £564m.

That is why the issue of Messi and Ronaldo is so pressing. Their routes to Barça and Juve were very different and they remain very different players. Yet their impact is the same: they are hugely expensive and have become inhibitive to an effective style of play, at least at the very highest level. But worse is that their clubs have to deal with them at a time when football’s finances are contracting. Messi’s contract is up this summer, Ronaldo’s in 2022; all-time greats they assuredly are, but it’s hard to see now who could possibly afford them.