Ballon d'Or: Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Benzema? Examining the credentials of the favourites

By Sports Desk November 26, 2021

Robert Lewandowski can consider himself hard done by. The Bayern Munich striker would almost certainly have won his maiden Ballon d'Or in 2020, only for France Football to decide not to hand out the award due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, world football's most prestigious individual accolade is back up for grabs this year, with the ceremony set to take place on Monday.

Lewandowski, who scooped The Best FIFA Men's Player award for 2020 and has had another sensational year for Bayern, is among the favourites on a 30-man shortlist.

Will it finally be his time, or will old voting habits die hard to put Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in pole position? Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses the credentials of the Ballon d'Or favourites.

Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)

Has anybody outperformed Bayern star Lewandowski in 2021?  While there was no repeat of the treble-winning heroics of the 2019-20 campaign, he has been in astounding form and last season broke Gerd Muller's 49-year record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga campaign, netting 41 as Die Roten were crowned champions for a ninth straight campaign.

With 25 to his name already across all competitions this term, Lewandowski leads the way for goals from players in Europe's top five leagues, nine clear of anyone else. When taking the whole year so far into account, Lewandowski has netted 53 times in 41 games, putting him 16 clear of nearest challengers Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. Unsurprisingly, his scoring rate – a goal every 65 minutes – is comfortably the best of any player to net 10 or more in 2021.

 

Lionel Messi (PSG, Argentina)

It has been a momentous year for Messi. He finally achieved success on the international stage, leading Argentina to a Copa America triumph. Following that, he was expected to sign a fresh deal at Barcelona, but we all know how that turned out. Now at Paris Saint-Germain, the 34-year-old marked his final season in Spain with one last trophy, the 2020-21 Copa del Rey. 

Across 39 appearances in 2021 for Barca and PSG combined, Messi has 32 goals, nine assists and 81   chances created. But it is Messi's triumph with Argentina that really puts him in the running for a seventh Ballon d'Or.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, Portugal)

Like Messi, Ronaldo – a five-time Ballon d'Or winner – made a big move of his own in 2021, returning to Manchester United after three seasons at Juventus. The 36-year-old has already scored 10 goals in his second spell at Old Trafford. While the team's struggles are well known – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer losing his job after last week's dismal defeat at Watford – Ronaldo's strike against Villarreal on Tuesday took him to 799 career goals for club and country, a remarkable feat.

While it has not been the finest year at club level for Ronaldo, with Juve missing out on the Serie A title, albeit winning the Coppa Italia, he did become the record goalscorer in men's international football, scoring his 110th and 111th goals in a double against the Republic of Ireland in September to overtake Ali Daei (109); the forward now has 115. His agent, Jorge Mendes, told France Football: "All these achievements, which represent the greatest performance in football history, should be pivotal in awarding the trophy, as he continues to demonstrate that he is, without doubt, the best world football player of all time."

Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)

Since Ronaldo departed Real Madrid in 2018, Benzema has stepped up to become Los Blancos' talisman. Although a LaLiga title evaded Madrid last season, it has been another fantastic year for Benzema. He earned a recall to the France squad for Euro 2020 and, despite the team's disappointing campaign, his stellar performances caught the eye, before he excelled again in World Cup qualifying and the Nations League Finals.

Indeed, Benzema's goal against Finland last week made him the first France player to score in four successive matches since he did so himself in five games between November 2013 and June 2014. There is no doubting he is a serious contender for this year's award.

Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, Egypt)

Liverpool star Salah cannot be ignored. Jurgen Klopp has labelled the Egypt forward as the world's best player and, based on the season so far, it would be hard to argue too much with that suggestion, with Lewandowski the only player across Europe's top five leagues to be directly involved in more goals (27) than Salah (24) to this point.

Only four players have topped Salah's goals tally of 32   in 2021, although Liverpool's failure to retain their Premier League crown last season probably counts against the 29-year-old when it comes to this prize.

 

Kylian Mbappe (PSG, France)

While players in their thirties dominate the bookmakers' list of favourites, could this be the year that Mbappe steals the crown? The 22-year-old could well have left PSG in August, but the Ligue 1 giants held firm despite three bids from Madrid, who seem likely to get their man on a free transfer at the end of the campaign.

In the meantime, Mbappe is forming a formidable front three with Messi and Neymar, whose own Ballon d'Or hopes seem extremely slim. Mbappe missed the decisive penalty as France slipped out of Euro 2020, but his 37 goals from 47 appearances for PSG across all competitions in 2021 tell their own story, while his shot conversion rate of 24.3 per cent betters that of Salah, Benzema, Messi and Ronaldo.

Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)

An outsider for the award, perhaps, but nevertheless a player who has been widely tipped, Chelsea midfielder Jorginho played a pivotal role the Blues' Champions League triumph and then Italy's Euro 2020 success, although he did miss a penalty in the final shoot-out against England. In fact, he has now missed his past three spot-kicks for Italy, after having scored each of his first six taken for the Azzurri.

Jorginho has already scooped the UEFA Men's Player of the Year award, and it is not too long ago that another deep-lying playmaker in Luka Modric won the Ballon d'Or, even if the competition this time around seems a little too stacked.

 

N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

Might Jorginho's Chelsea midfield partner have a shout? Kante is still dominating midfields with his boundless energy five years on from his title triumph with Leicester City. He was already an elite performer before Thomas Tuchel's arrival at Stamford Bridge, but he seems to have gone up another level since the German coach came in.

Across all competitions in 2021, Kante boasts a tackle success rate of 63.2 per cent and has made 193 recoveries. Freed by a box-to-box role in Tuchel's system, Kante has won 151 of 277 duels and registered an impressive 42 interceptions.

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    Robert Lewandowski declared he would not let it trouble him after Lionel Messi left the Bayern Munich striker off his picks for the FIFA Best Men's Player award.

    Paris Saint-Germain superstar Messi lavished Lewandowski with praise after pipping him to the Ballon d'Or award in November, saying the Poland captain would have deserved the previous year's award, which was scrapped because of the pandemic.

    Yet when it came to selecting his picks for the FIFA prize, which is a right afforded to all national team captains and head coaches, Argentina skipper Messi chose PSG team-mates Neymar and Kylian Mbappe as his first and second picks respectively, putting Real Madrid's Karim Benzema in third place.

    Lewandowski picked Champions League and Euro 2020 winner Jorginho as his first choice, ahead of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

    In the end, Messi's voting choices did not prevent Lewandowski picking up the FIFA honour, which went his way on Monday. Messi finished second, with Liverpool's Mohamed Salah third.

    "When you see what he said at the Ballon d'Or, those were nice words and it was very nice of him," Lewandowski said of Messi in a news conference on Tuesday.

    "Regarding his choices, this question must go to him. I don't think he can be mad at me privately, if it's about sport. It was his decision and I have to respect that. I don't have to be mad. I definitely voted him second."

    Messi and Ronaldo had held a near-duopoly over European and world football's top awards in recent times, but Lewandowski has now won the FIFA award in consecutive years.

    The 33-year-old set a Bundesliga single-season scoring record last term when he hit 41 goals for champions Bayern Munich, passing Gerd Muller's 40-goal benchmark.

    Once again, this season he is setting the standard across Europe's top five leagues for putting the ball in the back of the net.

    Among players from the Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, LaLiga and Serie A, nobody comes close to matching Lewandowski's haul of 34 goals in 27 games so far across all competitions.

    Benzema is second on the list with 24 goals, Mbappe has 19, while Messi has scored only six times for PSG since his dramatic move from Barcelona.

    After Salah (23 goals) in third place, next among scorers is Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland (21 goals).

    There has been speculation Haaland's next club could be Bayern, and Lewandowski was asked whether the strikers could play together.

    "If I train with him, then after a week or two you could say something," Lewandowski said. "Erling is a different type of player than me. But he's a top player, and I'm happy that he shows how good he is in every game. For me, that means I can keep doing my job.”

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    He was subsequently fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) – while the device could potentially save his life should something similar happen in future, it effectively ended his time at Inter due to Italian football regulations prohibiting professionals from having such implants.

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    Former club Tottenham, with whom he spent six and a half years, had been mooted as a potential destination, but reports on Monday claimed Brentford had offered him a six-month deal with the option for another year.

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    "He needs to find a club. I love to speak about players that are in house and go running around training pitch. I don't think I should discuss that. I'm not discussing that too much.

    "I really hope he comes back to top football and plays football again. He spoke to Danish TV about playing at the World Cup and I hope he does succeed for all football, and for Danish fans. He's our biggest star from the Euros, we want the best for him and his family."

    He soon opened up a little more, seemingly confirming Brentford's interest in both Eriksen and Bologna's Scottish left-back Aaron Hickey before also making reference to a joke made about potentially signing Kylian Mbappe in a recent interview.

    "I'm interested in a lot of players, both Hickey and Eriksen," Frank added. "Someone spoke about Mbappe, I'd take him as well!

    "A lot of rumours. I love to discuss if and when we sign a new player and give my insight. We're in the market and we're looking for players."

    Even if Brentford cannot ultimately land Eriksen, Frank believes the fact he was even discussing such a rumour showed just how far the club had come, though he recognised the unusual circumstances of this particular story.

    He added: "We all know the journey this club has been on over the last eight to 10 years. Ten years ago someone would say we're crazy to [think we'd] be linked with Eriksen.

    "We're playing in the best league in the world, the club is progressing, it's positive. There are so many rumours out there, coaches being sacked, new players. I think it's more fun to talk about other things – let's speak about reality.

    "This a player that only plays for the top clubs. Something unfortunate happened with Christian, he deserves to play at the highest level and I hope he does.

    "In normal circumstances, there would be no rumours with a club like us. We should be flattered with Brentford involved with a player of Christian's qualities. It's the same with all the players out there… [Lionel] Messi, Mbappe, Eriksen… if they fill in the criteria, they are right for us."

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    The Portugal international has scored 14 goals and assisted three more in 21 appearances since returning to Old Trafford from Juventus in September.

    That is double the number of goals than any other United player, with compatriot Bruno Fernandes next on the list with seven strikes to his name in 2021-22.

    Ronaldo's incredible longevity was recognised with a special award from FIFA on Monday after becoming the all-time top goalscorer in men's international football history in 2021.

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    "What he has done with his career so far is amazing: 800 goals in competitive games, which no one has achieved that in the last 80 or 100 years," Rangnick said.

    "That shows what kind of exceptional player he is. But the Premier League is the most competitive league in the world and he cannot do things on his own. 

    "He is one important member of this team and that’s how we have to develop."

    Ronaldo has missed United's last two games – a 1-0 win over Aston Villa in the FA Cup third round and a 2-2 draw against the same side five days later in the Premier League.

    Rangnick is hopeful of having Ronaldo back for Wednesday's trip to Brentford, which has been rescheduled from last month after a COVID-19 outbreak in the United camp.

    A raft of games have been called off in the English top flight in recent weeks, with bottom side Burnley having as many as four games in hand on some sides around them.

    Thomas Tuchel is among those to have asked for more transparency in terms of games being called off, with Chelsea recently having a postponement request declined. 

    Asked if he feels more should be done to prevent postponements, Rangnick said: "I don't know, I can only speak about our club here, we had some problems four weeks ago.

    "Right now we don't have any issues, we have players available, we haven't had any COVID cases. I can't judge other clubs, it's something the Premier League has to deal with."

    United head to Brentford sitting seventh in the Premier League and with just one win from their last five away top-flight matches. 

    The Red Devils have scored in all 10 of their Premier League away games this season, which is the best-such 100 per cent record in the competition this term. 

    However, three of the last four times they have failed to find the net on the road in the league have been in games in London (v Arsenal, Chelsea and Crystal Palace last season).

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