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Happy Birthday, Cristiano Ronaldo!

Feb 5, 2013, 8:31 AM EDT

Post-Match Press Conferences - Czech Republic v Portugal, Quarter Final: UEFA EURO 2012

We are talking about Cristiano Ronaldo because the man turns 28 today.

It’s a poignant day, in some ways, because one of the very best of an entire generation is now into career mid-life. Most observers of the game would call him the second best player in the universe; Real Madrid’s scoring ace is truly that special.

So why poignant? Because barring an injury to Barcelona rival Leo Messi, this Portuguese force, this top man in a generation, will never be the considered the world’s best. At present, there’s a fairly sizeable gap between Nos. 1 and 2. In a nutshell, Ronaldo approaches and breaks records; Messi obliterates them.

Considering Ronaldo pretty much is what he is at 28, and considering the 25-year-old Messi may not have quite reached the tip-top of his performance arc, there’s little chance of a place swap here.

Still, Ronaldo is a wonder, and his team is fabulously talented. And they begin an enormous home-and-away series next week as Champions League reaches Round-of -16 knockout play.

The highlight of the round sees Ronaldo’s former team, mighty Manchester United, facing his current team, Real Madrid.

Next week’s first leg (Feb. 13) will take place at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid. What Ronaldo – Again, Happy Birthday, dude! – told UEFA’s Champions League magazine about the matchup:

I believe things will go well. In my opinion Real Madrid have a better team, but we have to show that on the pitch because United are a very united team and always have been in recent years. They’re a team that always do well, every year they’re at the top and therefore a team we respect a lot. It will be an extremely difficult match, especially in Manchester.”