Agent Jorge Mendes claims his client Cristiano Ronaldo "has never deserved the Ballon d'Or more" following his individual achievements at club and international level.

The Portugal star returned to Manchester United from Juventus after a successful year in terms of individual records, including becoming the all-time international top scorer while also finishing as the leading marksman in Serie A in 2020-21.

The veteran forward has continued to be prolific for United this term, scoring five goals in just six appearances in all competitions for the Red Devils.

Ronaldo was less successful on the team front as Juventus saw their grip on the Italian top-flight broken, finishing fourth, while also being knocked out of the Champions League in the round of 16, and Portugal lost to Belgium at the same stage of the Euro 2020 finals.

However, Mendes feels the 36-year-old's remarkable personal achievements should make him the frontrunner for the coveted accolade.

"The numbers and statistics attached to Cristiano Ronaldo's name speak for themselves and should be enough for him to win another Ballon d'Or," Mendes told France Football.

"The absolutely remarkable total of 115 goals for the Portuguese national team makes him the record holder in the history of men's international football. This year he broke that 15-year-old record, to which he can add that of the top scorer in the history of professional 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.

"It is true that this is an individual trophy, but let's not forget that Cristiano Ronaldo was the top scorer in the demanding Serie A and was also the top scorer in the last European Championship [making him the all-time top scorer in that competition].

"He holds the record for goals in the Champions League and is the only player in the world to have won everything in three different countries with maximum competitiveness, as was the case in England, Italy and Spain.

"All this at the age of 36, with an absolutely unique regularity, commitment and a phenomenal capacity to overcome difficulties. In my opinion, this year the Ballon d'Or has a name: Cristiano Ronaldo. For me, he has never deserved it more."

Ronaldo faces stern competition if he is to win a sixth Ballon d'Or, however, with Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski netting the most goals in all club competitions among players in Europe's top five leagues last season (48, 12 more than Ronaldo) and he has already managed 13 this term.

Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Lionel Messi also outscored the Portugal star in all club competitions last season, and Messi claimed an international trophy with Argentina as he won the Copa America, finishing the tournament as the top scorer and top assist provider.

Meanwhile, midfielder Jorginho is being tipped as a contender after winning the Champions League with Chelsea and Euro 2020 with Italy.

Karim Benzema remains hopeful of one day linking up with France team-mate Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid.

Madrid are reported to have had three bids for Mbappe rejected by Paris Saint-Germain during the most recent transfer window, the biggest of which was said to be worth €200million.

The 22-year-old, whose current contract expires at the end of the season, revealed last week he asked to leave the Parc des Princes when Madrid's interest became apparent.

PSG publicly remain confident of convincing him to stay, though Madrid president Florentino Perez has hinted the Spanish giants may look to strike a deal with Mbappe in January when the prolific striker is free to open talks with foreign clubs.

Benzema has previously stated he has no doubt Mbappe will one day join Madrid and reiterated his desire to play alongside his compatriot at club level.

"Do I want to play with Kylian at Madrid? I've said it before, and if you want, I'll say it again. Of course, one day," he told RTVE.

"He is a great player, but you have to respect PSG."

Unlike Benzema, Mbappe has made an underwhelming start to the 2021-22 campaign with just four goals in his first 11 appearances for PSG.

That includes a run of 17 shots without scoring in Ligue 1 since netting against Clermont Foot on September 11.

However, Mbappe's 136 goals in 182 games since joining PSG in August 2017 is a tally bettered by only Cristiano Ronaldo (149), now team-mate Lionel Messi (163) and Robert Lewandowski (191) across that period among players from Europe's top five leagues in all competitions.

The former Monaco man's 61 assists over the same timeframe is the sixth-highest total, meanwhile, with Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller leading the way on 75.

 

Mbappe was last week named on the 30-man shortlist for the 2021 Ballon d'Or, an award that Benzema is among the favourites for in what has been a prolific year in front of goal.

Benzema has a combined 17 goals and assists for Madrid this campaign – 10 goals of his own and a further seven assists – which is three more than next best, Erling Haaland and Lewandowski.

And the Frenchman has been backed by Brazil great and former Madrid striker Ronaldo to see off the likes of Haaland, Lewandowski, Jorginho, Ronaldo and Messi to win the most prestigious individual accolade in football.

"Without a doubt, my candidate for the Ballon d'Or is Benzema," Ronaldo posted on his personal Instagram page on Thursday. 

"He is the best striker, who has played at a brutal level for 10 years and is a champion above all. Don't you think?"

Julian Nagelsmann fired a warning to defences across Europe by claiming Robert Lewandowski has a long time left at the top level – insisting the Ballon d'Or should come his way this year.

Although Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski turned 33 in August, there is no indication age is catching up with the Poland international.

His record haul of 41 Bundesliga goals last season came at a rate of one every 60.07 minutes.

That was the fastest rate of scoring across a campaign, in terms of minutes per goal, for any player with 10 or more goals in a Bundesliga season since the league was founded in 1963.

After missing out on Ballon d'Or recognition last year, when the award was cancelled due to the pandemic's impact on the global game, there is little doubt Lewandowski is a serious contender this time.

Bayern did not match up to their 2019-20 treble-winning feats, but they carried off a ninth consecutive Bundesliga title and Lewandowski was their spearhead.

"He deserves the Ballon d'Or – and in my opinion he has to win the award, because he has played more consistently than anyone else over the past three years," Bayern head coach Nagelsmann said.

Speaking to Munich newspaper Abendzeitung, Nagelsmann predicted Lewandowski would continue to thrive at the highest level into his late thirties.

"If Robert Lewandowski's body stays like this, it is far from over," said Nagelsmann.

"He is extremely dynamic, has no injuries, he can train a lot: I definitely trust him to play at the top, top level for a few more years – also because he aligns everything in his life accordingly, to be in the best physical condition."

 

In Bayern's triumphant 2019-20 Champions League campaign, Lewandowski netted 15 times, scoring on average once every 59.13 minutes. This term, he has four goals already in that competition from just 169 minutes on the pitch.

Lewandowski has said it "would mean a lot" to scoop the individual honour, and after being shortlisted his chief rival appears to be six-time winner Lionel Messi, who helped Argentina to Copa America glory.

Nagelsmann, meanwhile, is sitting tight when it comes to the future of Bayern defender Niklas Sule, whose contract expires at the end of this season.

Sule has been linked with Chelsea and Newcastle United, and Nagelsmann is taking a wait-and-see approach to what comes next for the Germany international.

"It depends on his development and also on the market situation whether he wants to extend the contract or not," Nagelsmann said. "Then we'll see if it works for both sides.

"Niki still has to develop a little with his potential and then make the most of it as a very good central defender."

Sergio Aguero needed Lionel Messi to tell him why he was being continually overlooked for Ballon d'Or honours.

Despite scoring a record 260 goals for Manchester City, Argentine striker Aguero has never come close to winning the trophy that Messi has carried off six times.

Being repeatedly overlooked began to trouble Aguero, but when Messi spelled out what he was lacking, it all made sense.

Now at Barcelona, Aguero looks back on his City career and appreciates why his feats fell short of making him a major contender for a prize Messi has won more than anyone else.

"Many times I thought about what was missing," Aguero told Spanish newspaper El Pais. "And one day I asked Leo. He told me that to have a chance to win the Ballon d'Or I had to win the Champions League. And he is right.

"The subject of trophies with the national teams is also important. Take [Fabio] Cannavaro's case, for example, when he won the World Cup in 2006."

Cannavaro took home the Ballon d'Or that year, with Italy team-mate Gianluigi Buffon in second place.

"I played great seasons, scored many goals and won many titles," Aguero said, "but I was not in the Champions League final. And last year when we reached the final, I had a knee problem, COVID and different injuries."

 

In 10 years at City, Aguero hit at least 20 Premier League goals in a season on six occasions, and only in one campaign (2012-13) did his minutes-per-goal record in the competition creep above one goal every 140 minutes.

That is a record that attracted Barcelona, with Messi's run of form over the same period having seen him score at between one every 57 minutes (2012-13) and one every 143.1 minutes (2006-07) in LaLiga.

Aguero has recovered from a calf injury and on Wednesday he featured in a training game for Barcelona against UE Cornella, meaning a competitive debut could be just around the corner.

It remains to be seen whether Aguero will be fit enough to play a part in Sunday's LaLiga match against Valencia, as Barca look to get their season on track.

A home fixture follows against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League; then comes the first Clasico of the season, with Real Madrid visiting Camp Nou on October 24.

Long-time Argentina team-mate Messi was at Barcelona when Aguero arrived, but he has since departed for Paris Saint-Germain.

Aguero recalled visiting Messi when it emerged he would be forced to leave Barcelona.

"It was a moment of shock. He was in a very bad way. When I found out I couldn't believe it. That Saturday I went to see him at his house," Aguero explained.

Aguero said he attempted to cheer up Barcelona's record goalscorer.

Now there will be expectations on Aguero's shoulders, and despite losing Messi, he says moving to Barcelona was the right choice once his City contract expired.

"Let's be honest. What player does not want to be at Barca?" Aguero continued.

"The majority of footballers would like to wear this shirt, no matter how good or bad Barca is. I arrived with the expectation of playing with Leo and that a good team would be put together, which was what the club tried to do. When they called me, I thought: 'I don't care what they pay me. I'm feeling good and I'm going to help the team as much as I can.'"

Robert Lewandowski is hopeful of landing a first Ballon d'Or, citing his remarkable achievements over the past two years.

Lewandowski was in incredible form as Bayern Munich won a treble in 2019-20, but the award was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the 33-year-old has maintained his incredible standards and was named on the 30-man shortlist for this year's prize.

Last season, the centre-forward broke Gerd Muller's long-standing record of Bundesliga goals in a single season, netting 41 times in the league and scoring seven more across all other club competitions, the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues. 

Lewandowski has not surrendered that position this season, with his 13 strikes in all competitions lifting him above second and third-placed Erling Haaland and Karim Benzema, on 11 and 10 goals respectively.

The Poland captain feels his astonishing level of production makes a good case for him to win the award, despite competition from the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Benzema and six-time winner Lionel Messi.

"The possibility of winning the Ballon d'Or means a lot to me, it makes me feel proud, if you look at everything I've achieved, not just this year, last year as well when they cancelled the ceremony, I've won a lot of titles, scored a lot of goals," Lewandowski told Marca.

"It would mean a lot to me to win it, having won the Champions League, the Super Cup, the Club World Cup. Breaking Gerd Muller's record of [40] Bundesliga goals [in a single season] was also a big achievement, one which made me very proud and happy.

"Everyone can see what I have done and keep doing. My achievements speak for themselves because my last two years have been a big achievement, not just for me but for any player in history."

 

Of his many achievements over the last two years, breaking revered goalscorer Muller's record is one of the most special to Lewandowski, who surpassed the late Bayern legend on the final day of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season with a 90th-minute strike in a 5-2 victory over Augsburg.

"I have to say that I couldn't sleep well [the night I broke Muller's record]," Lewandowski continued. "I remember the week before the game well, I heard I was on the verge of breaking the record. Until then the importance of breaking it hadn't really dawned on me, not just for the Bundesliga but in terms of football history.

"The day of the match I thought "this is mentally tough because it's all anyone is talking about". I knew I was so close, on the verge of making history, it was hard, but after scoring in the final seconds of the game I said to myself, "this is like a Hollywood movie."

"I was very proud of myself, of my team-mates, because they helped me a lot to break the record. To be honest, I still can't truly appreciate the magnitude of it, but I know what it means to people, they remember that record stood for [nearly] 50 years."

Kalidou Koulibaly says "it is a real shame" Senegal team-mate Edouard Mendy is not in the running to win this year's Ballon d'Or after an impressive first year at Chelsea.

Mendy joined Chelsea from Rennes last September and did not take long to oust Kepa Arrizabalaga as first choice between the sticks at Stamford Bridge.

He played a key part in the Blues' 2020-21 Champions League triumph, the 29-year-old's nine clean sheets the most by a goalkeeper in their debut campaign in the competition.

That includes a clean sheet in the 1-0 win over Manchester City in the final as Mendy became the first African goalkeeper to lift the famous trophy.

Mendy's 19 shutouts in all competitions this calendar year, meanwhile, has been bettered only by Manchester City's Ederson (20) among keepers in Europe's top five leagues.

He was not included on the 30-player Ballon d'Or shortlist last week, however, and Koulibaly has suggested that could be down to his nationality.

"It's a real shame that Edou isn't included. He is the first African goalkeeper to win the Champions League," Koulibaly told reporters while away on international duty with Senegal.

"We must continue to work and move forward. We have to do the double [the work] of some people to be well judged.

"Edou is a very positive person. We talked about it together. He will continue to fight to be part of it. For me, he has a place among these 30 players."

Gianluigi Donnarumma is the only goalkeeper in contention to win football's most prestigious individual accolade after helping Italy to Euro 2020 success.

The Paris Saint-Germain star's save percentage of 70.8 in 2021 is considerably lower than Mendy's 77.23 at club level when taking all competitions into account.

Indeed, only Keylor Navas – who Donnarumma is battling with for a starting spot at PSG – boasts a better save percentage (78.38) than Mendy among those to have played at least 15 times since January 1.

Napoli defender Koulibaly is also not part of the shortlist for the award, with Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez the only African players selected.

Five of Mendy's Chelsea club-mates were included in the shortlist, however, with Mason Mount, Romelu Lukaku, Cesar Azpilicueta, N'Golo Kante and Jorginho nominated. 

Jorginho is dreaming of winning the Ballon d'Or as Azzurri head coach Roberto Mancini insisted no one is more "deserving" than the Chelsea and Italy star.

Having won Euro 2020 with Italy after helping Chelsea to Champions League glory last season, Jorginho is among the nominees for this year's Ballon d'Or, alongside the likes of Paris Saint-Germain superstar and Copa America winner Lionel Messi and Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski.

Jorginho already received the UEFA Men's Player of the Year prize following his exploits for club and country.

"Ballon d'Or? That's the dream of every child in the world," Jorginho told reporters ahead of Sunday's Nations League third-place play-off against Belgium.

"I learnt that dreaming little things and big things is exactly the same. So, I prefer to dream big things."

"It would be incredible," the 29-year-old midfielder continued. "I can't find words to explain it. I could never imagine it when I start my career. But now I'm so close and that's really incredible, I feel so good."

Jorginho added: "Things are changing fast. I worked very hard with Chelsea and Italy, then this perfect season happened.

"Everyone helped me. I do not feel pressure, to be honest. I'm calm because everyone believes in me. I'm happy."

Italy boss Mancini also endorsed Jorginho for the prized individual honour, telling a news conference: "They were nominated because they are good players and not because of me.

"If I have to choose one, I'd give it to Jorginho because he won Champions League, Euro Cup and FA Cup. He deserves it, I do not see anyone deserving it more than him."

Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel believes Jorginho is the player most deserving of this year's Ballon d'Or, but does not believe the award should be seen as hugely important.

The 29-year-old won the Champions League with the Blues and Euro 2020 with Italy last season and was handed the UEFA Men's Player of the Year prize as a result.

Midfielder Jorginho is now in contention for another individual gong after being named on the Ballon d'Or's 30-man shortlist alongside the likes of Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.

"Jorginho really deserves to win the Ballon d'Or," Tuchel said while attending the Gazzetta festival. 

"These individual prizes, however, are not of great value on the football field, it is impossible to make a real comparison.

"Obviously, I would like it if my player wins it, because it would greatly increase the confidence he has in his own means, but for me, it is not an essential thing."

N'Golo Kante, Cesar Azpilicueta, Mason Mount and Romelu Lukaku also represent Chelsea on the shortlist for the prestigious prize, and Tuchel had plenty to say about Lukaku, who returned to Stamford Bridge from Inter in August.

"I'm sorry for the Inter fans, but we have identified in him a player of personality who could also lift the pressure from the shoulders of the youngest and who would give us the opportunity to play football faster," Tuchel added. 

"He had always said he was fine with Inter and with [Antonio] Conte because he had achieved excellent results, but for him, it was important to go back to where he had played as a [young man]." 

Lukaku has made a solid start to life back in London, scoring four goals in nine appearances across all competitions in his second stint as a Chelsea player.

 

Karim Benzema has declared his determination to win the Ballon d'Or after taking centre stage at Real Madrid since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure.

The France striker has been Madrid's attacking spearhead and has taken over the captaincy following the exit of Sergio Ramos, reflecting his standing with the Spanish giants.

With three LaLiga titles and four Champions League wins in 12 years, Benzema has accrued plenty of silverware while with Los Blancos.

Now, individual acclaim is regularly coming his way, with Benzema stepping out of Ronaldo's long shadow and becoming the talisman.

He has topped the 20-goal mark in LaLiga in the last three seasons and has nine strikes in eight games so far this term in the Spanish top flight, with Madrid top of the table.

With Lionel Messi having moved on to Paris Saint-Germain, Benzema has a major claim to be the star turn in LaLiga, and a first Pichichi trophy, which goes to the league's top scorer, is an obvious target.

Ahead of his 34th birthday in December, Benzema has perhaps never been a more credible contender for the Ballon d'Or, although the likes of Messi, Jorginho and Robert Lewandowski might deny him this time around. They, along with Benzema, were selected on a shortlist on Friday.

"Since I was a kid, it was always a dream of mine to win the Ballon d'Or... it's the dream for most players," Benzema told AS.

"It's true that football is a team game but when you help the side to win, when you're instrumental in triumphs, when you score winning goals, it's natural for any player to aspire to win the Ballon d'Or.

"Of course, I'll work as hard as I can to win that trophy and I hope, someday, fulfil the dream I had when I was a young boy."

 

Carlo Ancelotti, in the early weeks of his second spell as Madrid head coach, spoke glowingly of Benzema in August, saying: "He is a very complete player. Now he is more complete than five years ago."

Benzema feels personal recognition has been hard earned during his time in Spain.

"It's possible that it has been a struggle at times but the most important thing is that people are enjoying my style of play, that's something that makes me proud and extremely happy," Benzema added.

Benzema was an effective foil to Ronaldo as he went on to become Madrid's all-time record scorer, but the plaudits mainly went to the Portuguese, who departed for Juventus in 2018.

Last season, Benzema's 23 league goals came at a rate of one every 126.13 minutes, which he has only beaten twice in a full season at Madrid. They also came from an expected goals total of 18.81, indicating he is excelling in taking the chances that come his way.

His shot conversion rate so far in 2021-22 is 26.47 per cent, higher than he has achieved across any full LaLiga campaign since arriving in 2009 from Lyon.

He described his Madrid role as that of "a big brother figure", helping along the likes of Vinicius Jr.

It remains to be seen whether Benzema is joined at Madrid by his France team-mate Kylian Mbappe, who was targeted by Los Blancos during the last transfer window.

Mbappe is in the final year of his Paris Saint-Germain contract and could move to Madrid for free next year. Benzema has said it is "a question of time", convinced Mbappe will at some stage in his career pull on the famous white shirt.

Speaking about the 22-year-old striker, who he has played alongside for France, Benzema said: "Mbappe is an amazing talent with his brand of football and more so taking into consideration his age. He's also a really great guy and I love playing alongside him."

Karim Benzema has no doubt Kylian Mbappe will play for Real Madrid and says he enjoys being part of a team trying to redevelop under Carlo Ancelotti.

Madrid reportedly saw three bids rejected by Paris Saint-Germain for the France star during the transfer window, the last one said to be worth €200million.

Yet with Mbappe's contract expiring at the end of the season and no sign of an extension, the 22-year-old will be free to speak with foreign clubs over a possible free transfer from January onwards.

France team-mate Benzema says it is just a matter of time until Mbappe becomes a Madrid player, telling L'Equipe: "He said it himself. He wants something more. He will play at Real Madrid one day. I don't know when, but he'll come. It's a question of time."

Benzema believes Madrid are going through a transition under head coach Ancelotti, with established stars such as Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane having left while youngsters including Eduardo Camavinga and Vinicius Junior take on greater prominence in the first team.

"Real Madrid are still the best club in the world," he said. "Reconstruction or not, it's a new football, a new generation, new players. We have to invest in the youngsters so they become great players one day.

"I'm here to help them. I speak a lot with them. I want to improve them."

 

It is Benzema, however, who remains the cornerstone of the side. With eight goals and seven assists in just seven LaLiga games in 2021-22, the striker has more than double the direct goal involvements of any other player in the division.

He has also attempted the most shots (26), while only Sergio Canales has created more chances from open play than Benzema (14).

His form in the past year has led to calls for him to win the Ballon d'Or, the award returning this year after being suspended for 2020, with former Madrid star Luis Figo this week backing the 33-year-old for the prize.

While he cannot deny it is on his mind, Benzema says it is important not to become too focused on personal goals at the expense of helping the team.

"We have to think about it when you have ambition, but it doesn't have to be an obsession that makes you focus on yourself, telling yourself you have to shine individually," he said.

"If you have to win it, it's because of who you are, what you show on the pitch, what you do. For Figo to say I'm one of the candidates is important."

Gianfranco Zola believes midfielder Jorginho would be a deserving winner of the Ballon d'Or despite Lionel Messi's claims on the award.

Jorginho finished the 2020-21 campaign as Chelsea's leading Premier League scorer with seven goals, albeit each of those came from the penalty spot.

He carried that form into Euro 2020, playing every game for Italy in their successful campaign that ended with a penalty shoot-out win over England at Wembley.

Jorginho actually missed from the spot in the final, but he otherwise enjoyed an impeccable tournament for the Azzurri.

The Brazilian-born player led the way in terms of interceptions at Euro 2020 with 25, substantially more than Chelsea team-mate N'Golo Kante (14), who was next best.

Meanwhile, Jorginho's 484 successful passes were bettered only by Spain's Aymeric Laporte (644), leading to seven chances being created for his team-mates. Only Azzurri colleague Lorenzo Insigne (40) was involved in more shot-ending sequences than his 38.

 

Barcelona's Messi, a six-time Ballon d'Or winner, finished as LaLiga's top scorer last season with 38 goals and 12 assists across all competitions before inspiring Argentina to glory in the Copa America.

Despite Messi's pedigree former Chelsea forward Zola – who earned 35 caps for Italy and scored 10 goals between 1991 and 1997 – backed Jorginho as a worthy challenger. 

"The Ballon d'Or is usually awarded to a striker or an offensive player who can score a lot," Zola told Stats Perform. 

"Now we are talking about a fantastic player like [Lionel] Messi who did extraordinary things for the first time with his national team – and this won’t go unnoticed. 

"Should they give it to Jorginho, it would be deserved. He gives concrete balance and pace to his teams. I was lucky to have him at Chelsea and I know what he does on the pitch.

"It would be deserved because not only were his performances at a high level, but the teams he played for have been outstanding. This must be taken into account."

Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America had the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Italy and Argentina lifted the respective trophies at the weekend, with the Azzurri beating England in a penalty shoot-out and La Albiceleste seeing off bitter rivals Brazil at the Maracana to win the Copa for the first time since 1993.

Stats Perform has looked at 13 of the leading candidates to feature at either tournament to determine how their chances look heading into the new season.

Jorginho

Before Euro 2020, N'Golo Kante was the Chelsea midfielder seen to be within the best shot of scooping individual honours at the end of 2021, but a month on it's Jorginho who is the European champion at club and international level.

While he has perhaps been underappreciated or misunderstood at times with Chelsea, perhaps supporters will see him in a new light after playing a vital role in Italy's success as their deep-lying playmaker.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Lewandowski's Ballon d'Or hopes arguably aren't any worse now than before the Euros as no one will have expected Paulo Sousa's men to make much of an impact. He got three goals in as many games and was only out-scored by six players, which is a solid achievement.

 

Marco Verratti

Had he not been injured for the first two games of Euro 2020, there's every possibility it would have been Verratti being crowned as player of the tournament, with the Paris Saint-Germain star arguably the player who embodies the qualities of Roberto Mancini's transformed Italy side more than any other.

Not only did he create more chances than anyone else at Euro 2020 (14), but averaged more touches (114.5) than anyone, played the fourth-most passes (87.1) and ranked third for tackles (four) per 90 minutes among all players to have featured for at least 125 minutes. His all-action excellence set the tone for the Azzurri's vibrant and, ultimately, successful football.

 

N'Golo Kante

Kante inspired Chelsea to Champions League glory, named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final versus Real Madrid and the final against Manchester City.

But France's last-16 elimination by Switzerland will have done little to boost his chances, with Paul Pogba rather than Kante the standout figure for Les Bleus. While a nomination is almost a certainty, taking the gong home now looks beyond the all-action midfielder.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

His exceptional quality was further underlined by the fact only Verratti created more chances than him over the course of the tournament, an impressive feat given he started the tournament late due to injury and then had to play through another fitness issue in Belgium's final match, but that's unlikely to be enough to earn him the award.

Gianluigi Donnarumma

Generally, the player considered to be the best at a major international competition has a pretty good chance of winning further accolades, so in that case Donnarumma may have a reasonable opportunity after UEFA crowned him Euro 2020's Player of the Tournament.

Statistically there were numerous goalkeepers who were more important than him to their respective teams given he technically didn't prevent any goals according to Opta's xGOT metric – Tomas Vaclik's prevented a tournament-high 2.5. Nevertheless, Donnarumma wasn't guilty of any drops or errors that led to shots, and made crucial saves across two penalty shoot-outs, including a couple in the final.

 

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

A slow start to Euro 2020 followed, although Kane scored four times in the knockout phase as he played a key role in England's journey to the final. But when it mattered most he failed to have a single touch in the Italy penalty area. A talismanic performance in the showpiece may have put him firmly in the running, but it's difficult to see him being a major contender now.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

He certainly cannot be accused of failing to deliver for Belgium given he scored four times, but they came up short against Italy in the quarter-finals, with a partially injured De Bruyne unable to truly weave his magic. Lukaku's influence upon Inter shouldn't be overlooked, but the achievements of others on the international stage may overshadow his own.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it did put him right in the mix and he followed that up with a starring role in Argentina's Copa triumph, the first senior international trophy of his career. Given his lack of success with La Albiceleste was arguably the final barrier to clear in his career, a Ballon d'Or will surely follow later this year as he led Lionel Scaloni's men with four goals (joint-most) and five assists (the most).

 

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day, but it probably won't be in 2021. He was one of the biggest disappointments at Euro 2020, failing to score once despite his chances having an accumulative xG value of 2.02 – that under-performance was second-worst to Gerard Moreno (3.32).

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he only had an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or ahead of the Copa America, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

While his performances with Brazil would see him included in most people's team of the tournament, he wasn't dependable in front of goal, his one non-penalty strike coming from 5.3 xG, an under-performance unmatched by anyone in the tournament. He'll have to wait a bit longer for the prize he supposedly craves above all others.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

He definitely didn't do his chances any harm as he won the Golden Boot for most goals (five) – beating Patrik Schick by virtue of having more assists – after becoming the Euros' all-time leading scorer (11) and levelling Ali Daei's world-record haul of 109 international goals, but Portugal's failure to get beyond the last 16 won't help.

 

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

But he could only muster one goal at the Copa America as he and Uruguay had a minimal impact, meaning it'll take something special for Suarez to be a major candidate at the end of the year.

Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America have the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Following club seasons either laden with trophies or padded with statistical achievements – or, in some cases, a bit of both – a few elite-level performances could make the difference in the race to win France Football's famous award.

Stats Perform has chosen a shortlist of 14 players who could make themselves Ballon d'Or favourites should they sparkle over the next month...

 

Karim Benzema

Remarkably, Karim Benzema failed to win a trophy with Real Madrid despite registering 30 goals and nine assists in 46 games in all competitions.

That form did bring his international exile to an end, though, and if he keeps it up for France over the coming month, a Ballon d'Or challenge is not out of the question.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

Had Pep Guardiola's men finally got their hands on the Champions League trophy, the Ballon d'Or might be De Bruyne's already. Leading Belgium to Euros glory would probably do the job.

Ruben Dias

The other prime candidate for City's player of the season, Ruben Dias was a colossal performer at the heart of their defence after joining from Benfica, winning the Premier League's Player of the Season award.

Defenders' difficulties winning big individual prizes are well documented, and the last to lift the Ballon d'Or – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – did so after leading Italy to the World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes

Bruno Fernandes was heartbroken to lose the Europa League final on penalties as his wait for a trophy with Manchester United goes on.

However, a combined 46 direct goal involvements – the most of any Premier League player – means individual glory could be on the cards should Fernandes and Portugal shine.

Phil Foden

The PFA Young Player of the Year winner, Phil Foden blossomed in 2020-21 from prodigious talent to integral player for both City and England.

His Ballon d'Or chances are probably slimmer than those of a couple of his City team-mates, but long-awaited success for the Three Lions could put him right in the mix.

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

Winner of the Golden Boot at the last World Cup, Kane is England's undisputed star going into Euro 2020 and has every chance of topping the scoring charts again.

N'Golo Kante

Arguably the popular choice for the award, N'Golo Kante won the Champions League with Chelsea after being named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final and the final against City.

France are most observers' favourites to win the Euros and, if they do, Kante will surely be facing short odds to win the ultimate individual trophy – even if it's one in which he has little interest.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Winning the Euros with Poland might be a stretch, but finishing as top goalscorer is certainly achievable.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

With eight goals in his past nine games for Belgium, the 28-year-old could well be the man to fire Roberto Martinez's side to glory, which would make him very hard to overlook.

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day. The Euros could be his ticket to glory in 2021.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it does put him right in the mix. If he can finally win the Copa America with Argentina, Ballon d'Or number seven may well follow.

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he has only an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

He typically produces in a Brazil shirt, though, and winning the Copa America would propel him right back into the mix for the individual prize he supposedly craves above all others.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

Ronaldo won his fourth of five Ballons d'Or after Portugal triumphed at Euro 2016, and there's little doubt he would be vying for a sixth if they defend that trophy.

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

Should Uruguay upset the odds at the Copa America, you can bet Suarez will be in the running for the Ballon d'Or. Quite what Barca fans would make of that is hard to say.

N'Golo Kante believes Ballon d'Or speculation is way ahead of schedule as he attempts to add Euro 2020 glory to his Champions League success.

After an outstanding performance against Manchester City helped Chelsea become European club champions, Kante wants to make it a double by guiding France to success over the coming month.

The dynamic midfielder was tipped for the highest individual honour in football after Chelsea's 1-0 win over City in Porto, and Les Bleus team-mate Paul Pogba has thrown his support behind the growing clamour.

But Kante said he doesn't "pay attention" to praise of his displays, saying on Sunday: "What I hear can be touching, but I try to do what I have always done: be natural and give my best on the pitch. If it can give people pleasure, so much the better."

Asked about the prospect of winning the Ballon d'Or, Kante said: "It's a bit too soon to speak about that now. We're just getting to halfway through the year, there are six months to go, lots of competitions to play and it doesn't help to say that I deserve it now.

"Some years ago, I was in the top 10, that was the first time and it made me happy. To win it, that would be another story."

It was December 2017 when Kante cracked the top 10, finishing eighth in the vote.

"It's a great personal reward," Kante said of the prize. "I see it like the reward for an accomplished season by a player, but it's not an objective I work towards. Those who have won it are the players who have achieved the great things during their career."

Kante's France and Chelsea team-mate Olivier Giroud has little doubt the 30-year-old would be a worthy winner, describing him as "clearly a contender".

Speaking in a France news conference on Sunday, Giroud said: "We'll start talking to him about the Ballon d'Or if we win the Euros.

"He is stressed and tense when we talk to him about it! But it flatters him of course, even if he doesn't like compliments too much and prefers to keep a low profile. He deserves what happens to him."

Should Kante go on to land the award, which is handed out annually by France Football magazine, he would be the first Frenchman to do so since Zinedine Zidane.

Zidane took the honour in 1998, having inspired hosts France to win the World Cup for the first time.

Paul Pogba believes his France team-mate N'Golo Kante would be a worthy winner of the Ballon d'Or after playing a key role in Chelsea's Champions League success.

It was not too long ago that speculation suggesting Chelsea were tempted to cash in on Kante was rife, with the midfielder struggling with a few injuries in 2019-20.

But he enjoyed a strong 2020-21, evidenced particularly by his performances towards the end of the season in the Champions League.

The 30-year-old stamped his presence all over the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid and was named man of the match for both legs in a 3-1 aggregate triumph.

During the second encounter in London, Kante made five interceptions – only bettered by six from Jorginho – but also made more passes in the opposition half (25) and created more chances (three) than any other Chelsea player.

Heading into the final, he was one of just six midfielders in the 2020-21 competition with a passing accuracy above 85 per cent (86.4), an accuracy into the final third of above 80 per cent (82.1), more than 40 ball recoveries (63), over 500 touches (511) and at least 25 possession wins in the middle third of the pitch (42).

Then, in the final itself, Kante won 11 of 15 duels, recovered the ball 10 times for his team, and, as the shortest man on the pitch, won four out of seven aerial duels – nobody on his team won more. Chelsea beat Manchester City 1-0, with Kante a vital component as Pep Guardiola's men lost the midfield battle.

While some in the past might have limited Kante's strengths to the more defensive aspects of the game, his form in the Champions League highlighted that to be unfair, with the World Cup winner actually a far greater all-round player than many give him credit for.

Indeed, international colleague Pogba thinks he is deserving of the most illustrious individual prize of all.

"What I would like to say to the whole world is that the 'NG' we have seen in recent months has always been the same," Pogba told Eurosport. "We talk a lot about his performances but he has always been as good as ever.

"There was no Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi in the semi-final, so it's good to see the performances of the midfielders or even the defenders.

"I said a long time ago that it would be appropriate, if Chelsea won, for him to win the Ballon d'Or. It would be deserved, too.

"He's always performed well. I'm not surprised by what he's doing, I'm just surprised that he's still doing it. He has always played matches like that."

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