BARCELONA, Spain – The Spanish league is about to start, and so are their biggest stars.
It will be tough for Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo to take their unprecedented scoring duel to greater heights after last season's record-breaking performances.
But that doesn't mean they won't try.
In the Spanish league alone, Messi scored a record 50 times last season, while Ronaldo almost kept pace with 46 goals, six more than the previous league record that the Portuguese forward established the year before.
"I begin each season with the objective of surpassing what I have done before," Messi said. "I don't try to score more goals, I try to improve as a player. I hope I still have margin to continue growing and become a better footballer."
Messi shattered a string of records in 2011-12.
The 25-year-old Argentina forward scored 73 goals overall in 60 games for Barcelona, breaking the mark of 67 set by Bayern Munich's Gerd Mueller in 1973 and the prior world club mark of 70 established by Archie Stark of Bethlehem Steel in the American Soccer League in 1925. He became Barcelona's all-time leading scorer by breaking a 57-year-old club milestone, and equaled a Champions League record with 14 goals.
Ronaldo came close to matching Messi with 60 goals in 55 games in all competitions as he powered Madrid to the Spanish league title and its record point haul (100) and goals scored (121).
"My immediate goals are to work as hard as I can so I can fight with my team for all the titles possible," Ronaldo said. "I want to keep getting better because it is going to be a long season."
On Tuesday, the two rivals and Messi's teammate Andres Iniesta were chosen finalists for the UEFA Best Player in Europe award.
Messi has won the award the past three years. Ronaldo won it in 2008.
For Ronaldo's coach Jose Mourinho, his fellow countryman should win this time.
"My idea is clear, football is a collective sport," Mourinho said. "Real Madrid won a very important title and won it in spectacular fashion. Those that make the difference on a great champion team are the (best) candidates."
Messi refused to say if he felt he deserved the award more than Ronaldo. Instead, he said he would like to see it go to a Barcelona player.
"I would like to see the award remain for one more year at Barcelona," he said.
The two scoring aces will soon meet in the Spanish Supercup, to be played between Madrid and Barcelona over two legs on Aug. 23 and 29, one day before the winner of the award is announced.
And if the battle for individual honors wasn't enough added motivation, both players ended last season with team and individual disappointments despite their superb scoring campaigns.
While Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, Club World Cup and both the Spanish and European Super Cups, it was dethroned by Madrid in the Spanish league and lost to Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals. Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at home against the eventual champion that would have sent the Catalan club through.
Ronaldo had a penalty saved in a loss to Bayern Munich in the other Champions League semifinal.
Messi said his goal is for Barcelona to return to the top of both Spain and Europe.
"I hope so. We're upset with how we ended last season with the loss to Chelsea and the loss to Real Madrid in Camp Nou," he said. "Last season is history. We begin from zero."
Without any international commitments this summer for Argentina, Messi has enjoyed both a longer than usual vacation and has been able to get in a full preseason under Barcelona's new coach Tito Vilanova.
"Leo has come back strong," Barcelona's Javier Mascherano said about his fellow Argentina teammate. "This season you will see him start in even better shape."
The Spanish league begins for both teams on Aug. 19 with Real Madrid hosting Valencia and Barcelona hosting Real Sociedad.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.