This afternoon in Zurich the most prestigious award for an individual footballer will once again be decided. The familiar pairing of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, are joined by Manuel Neuer . David Kent profiles the candidates and makes his prediction.
Despite what can be read in the tabloids, Messi has had another sensational year, even by his standards, smashing records in seemingly every game he has played. After starting 2014 by losing to Ronaldo in the Ballon D’Or, the Argentinian has surpassed his own high levels. In March, he became Barcelona’s highest ever goalscorer in all competitions. One week later, in the El Clasico against Ronaldo’s Real Madrid, he scored a hat trick to break the record for most goals in the fixture. Messi only won one medal in 2014 though, the Spanish Super Cup, as Barcelona narrowly missed out in both La Liga and the Copa Del Rey. In the World Cup in Rio, his first three games brought a return of four goals, and three man of the match performances. His fourth came in the round of 16, where he assisted an extra time winner to put Argentina into the quarter finals. The goals dried up after that, but the Albiceleste made it to the final, where they were defeated after extra time. Messi was awarded the Golden Ball for the best player of the tournament. He was too downtrodden on his return to Barcelona, scoring twice in the opening game of the season, before scoring his 400th career goal in September, aged only 27. A hat trick against Sevilla in November meant he became the top scoring player in La Liga ever, and the same week equalled the feat in the Champions League. As it stands in the 2014-15 campaign, 24 games played, 24 goals.
His second Ballon D’Or win in January was a signal for what was to come in 2014 for Cristiano Ronaldo. Everything the Real Madrid marksman hit seems to end in the net. A European hat trick against Schalke in March meant he was the first player to score 10 or more goals in three consecutive Champions League seasons. On the domestic front, his winner against Malaga in March meant he had scored at least 25 goals for five years straight, the first player to do so. Madrid stormed through to the Champions League semi-finals, and with a brace in the second leg against Neuer’s Bayern Munich, Ronaldo set another new record by becoming the first player to score 16 goals in a Champions League/European Cup season. Madrid won their 10th Champions League, with Ronaldo scoring a penalty in the final against rivals Atletico Madrid. He finished La Liga with 31 goals in 30 games and as top scorer, and shared the top goalscorer on the continent award, the European Golden Shoe, with Luis Suarez. A disappointing World Cup for both Ronaldo and Portugal followed in the summer, with Ronaldo struggling through a thigh injury, his country exiting in the group stages, including a heavy 4-0 defeat to Neuer’s Germany. It didn’t deter the striker, and in the opening game of the 2014-15 season, two goals won the UEFA Super Cup for Los Blancos. He won the UEFA equivalent of the Ballon D’Or in August. What followed was a truly sensational September, with Ronaldo scoring seven goals in 72 hours. His tally of 15 in just eight games was a Spanish record (held previously by Ferenic Puskas). He struck his 23rd La Liga hat trick (another record) in December, and won the Club World Cup that same month. Medals in the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League for the 29 year old, who has 33 goals in just 28 games so far this season.
While everyone has been fawning over the goals of Messi and Ronaldo, Neuer has been quietly winning nearly every medal available to him in 2014. In the first half of the year, from January to May, Neuer only conceded 18 goals, as Bayern Munchen easily won the Bundesliga in April, the quickest win ever. His 4 goals conceded away from home in the second half of the season was a Bundesliga record. The same story in the German cup, six games played, only two goals conceded. The same happened in the Champions League group stages, only five conceded in 6 games, three of which game in the final game against Manchester City. However, he was humbled by the magic of Ronaldo’s Real in the semis, conceding four times in the semi-final in the Allianz Arena. But what sets Neuer apart from the other two nominees is that he has done it on the international stage as well. His first three group games for Germany saw three clean sheets (including one vs Ronaldo), another following in the quarter finals against France, but he let in a late goal in the 7-1 semi-final rout of Brazil in the Maracanã. He then came up against Messi in the final, and another shut out meant Germany became the World Champions, Neuer getting the Golden Glove award for best goalkeeper. He carried this form into the new Bundesliga season, keeping clean sheets in thirteen of the first 17 games, not letting a goal in in over 600 minutes of football, a phenomenal stat. He went one better in the Champions League, conceding just 4 times in the group stages, but again was undone by Manchester City, who put three past the giant German. When you compare the medals in 2014 of the three nominees, Neuer comes out on top. A Club World Championship, a World Cup, a Bundesliga and a German Cup, tops the chart for Manuel. He is vying to become the first goalkeeper to win the award In 52 years, with Lev Yashin, the legendary Russian keeper, the last to win it back in 1963
So who will win it?
While Neuer has had a tremendous year, it is hard to see how this will not be once again between the two best players in world football, and arguably the two best players ever. It’s the greatest rivalry on the planet, and with Ronaldo trumping Messi last year, it is going to be very close as to whether the Argentinian can win his 5th Ballon D’Or. But it does appear that Ronaldo will take it again. His goals have driven Real Madrid to the trophy they craved for so long (La Decima, their 10th Champions League), and he has continued his form into 2015. Compare this to Messi, who is once again reported to be disgruntled at the Camp Nou, possibly due to Barcelona’s lack of trophies in 2014.