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Ballon d’Or: The race for third place

We’ve reached the point where discussing the contenders for the Ballon d’Or itself is pointless. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s dominance is absolutely astounding, and this will be the eighth consecutive year that either has been voted the world’s greatest player.

Amazingly, it will be seven second-placed finishes between them during that period too. Only in 2010, when Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez were beaten by Messi in Spain’s World Cup-winning year, has Ronaldo slipped out of the top three.

This time around, Messi will surely win. 2/9 are the best odds available for Barcelona’s number ten to triumph, after a year when he won the treble with Barcelona, and led Argentina to the Copa America final. It feels odd that this will be his first triumph since 2012, but it demonstrates Ronaldo’s level of performance, and shows the strength of the rivalry.

The real battle, bizarrely, is now about who finishes third – many bookmakers now have a ‘without Messi and Ronaldo’ market which is much more competitive. Over the past four years, four different players have been named the world’s third-best – the aforementioned Xavi and Iniesta, followed by Bayern Munich pair Franck Ribery and Manuel Neuer. But who will ‘triumph’ this time?

football on pitch in stadium

Robert Lewandowski, Bayern and Poland

Lewandowski could become the third consecutive Bayern man to finish third in the Ballon D’Or voting – many bookmakers have him at evens.

The Pole is currently the world’s best outright number nine, combining traditional striking qualities with intelligent link play, and his goals return this calendar year has been outstanding. He was the Bundesliga’s second top scorer last season, is leading the way this season, and also finished top of the Euro 2016 goalscorer charts too.

What Lewandowski has in his favour, more than anything else, is his excellent recent form. His historic quickfire five-goal haul against Wolfsburg was remarkable, and he effectively took the game away from former club Dortmund in a recent 5-1 victory with two goals. The ‘availability heuristic’ will help him here, and he’s the most likely player to be voted third.

Neymar, Barcelona and Brazil

Neymar might not be the world’s third-best player, but he’s most likely to be the first post-Messi-and-Ronaldo Ballon d’Or winner. The Brazilian has rapidly improved during his time at Barcelona, and is currently thriving in Messi’s absence – he scored four goals in the weekend thrashing of Rayo Vallecano, almost running the game by bamboozling defenders and winning penalties, and is currently averaging better than a goal a game.

In a way, however, it feels like Neymar missed his chance – the suspension that ruled him out for the majority of Brazil’s Copa America campaign meant he was unable to exert serious influence on a major international tournament Ronaldo wasn’t at. It would have been tough for him to overthrow Messi, certainly, but with a little more discipline this could have been Neymar’s time to break the duopoly. After all, he won the treble with Barca too.

Messi will be out for roughly another month, and if Neymar continues to shine in his absence, he could finish third ahead of Lewandowski. However, next year is probably a better bet.

Luis Suarez, Barcelona and Uruguay

Much like Neymar, Suarez missed his chance to shine on the international stage by being suspended for the entirety of the summer’s Copa America tournament – he’d won the award for best player four years ago, as Uruguay triumphed.

Suarez has been excellent at Barcelona, impressing as the number nine and contributing plenty of goals. But the nature of his role means he’s effectively playing in support of Messi and Neymar, who cut inside from wide – he’s excellent at making lateral runs into the channels to take centre-backs out of position, for example.

In helping two rivals for the Ballon d’Or shine, Suarez has helped his side, but not his chances of a top three finish here.

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal and Chile

Sanchez doesn’t look out of place amongst these contenders – not least because he played upfront with Messi and Neymar at Barca – and is the only player on this list to have won an international tournament this year, triumphing on home soil in the Copa America.

He’s also produced some glorious moments for Arsenal – the brilliant long-range strike against Aston Villa in the FA Cup final, for example, plus a recent hattrick at Leicester and a key role in the destruction of Manchester United.

However, after a brilliant opening to his Arsenal career, Sanchez actually suffered a dip in form at the turn of the year – not unusual for La Liga imports to the Premier League – and started this domestic campaign slowly too. Overall, his average performance level hasn’t quite been good enough for the top three.

Kevin De Bruyne, Wolfsburg/Manchester City and Belgium

Of all the players on this list, De Bruyne has been the most consistent. He was the Bundesliga’s best player last season – no mean feat considering Bayern’s dominance – helping Wolfsburg to second place, and a German Cup victory too, when he scored the crucial second goal in a 3-1 win over Dortmund.

His assist figures have been absolutely staggering – he led the way in Europe’s major five leagues last season – and since moving to Manchester City, he’s recorded five goals and five assists in just eight matches. His efficiency is quite incredible, and he’s capable of producing at crucial moments too.

De Bruyne suffers, though, from not being as high-profile as others on this list. He was playing in the Europa League at the start of this calendar year, for example, and few will have watched him consistently with Belgium. He should be close to pipping Lewandowski for third place, but in reality will probably finish well down the voting.

Thomas Muller, Bayern and Germany

It seems peculiar that Muller, who finished fifth in the voting last year, is only considered the 18th-favourite to finish third. Of course, last year he impressed primarily because of his World Cup performances, and his displays for Bayern over the course of 2015 have been steady rather than spectacular.

But then, that’s exactly why Muller is so popular – no-one can work out precisely why he’s so good, but he consistently provides key contributions at key moments, popping up unnoticed with his incredible ability to find space. Others have enjoyed better years, but in terms of the betting, Muller surely represents the best value in this market, at 100/1 to finish behind Messi and Ronaldo.

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October 22nd, 2015 by Michael Cox

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