With a resurgent Lionel Messi having ended his reign as the world’s best player and Neymar on the rise, the now 30-year-old Portuguese faces an uphill task to reclaim his throne
Such has been Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s recent dominance of the Ballon d’Or, Angel Di Maria mused last year, “If I were Fifa, I’d have two prizes: one for that pair to fight over; and another for everyone else.” The Paris Saint-Germain winger was joking, of course, but there was no denying that the Ballon d’Or had become an annual two-horse race. Since 2011, nobody other than Messi or Ronaldo has finished in the top two.
That could be about to change, though. Messi reclaimed the No.1 spot on Monday to rack up his fifth Ballon d’Or but while Ronaldo finished second, that was by no means a formality, with Neymar having made a strong case for the runners-up berth. Indeed, many feel that Neymar should have finished second, which will no doubt have upset Ronaldo, who attaches great importance to Fifa’s prestigious individual honour.
Indeed, he will already have been infuriated by suggestions that he should not have even made this year’s shortlist – the last time that happened was 2010, when three Barcelona players, Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi, claimed the podium places. There are those, though, that believe that it should have been a Blaugrana clean sweep again this year, given the sensational form of Luis Suarez during the Catalans’ treble triumph.
“Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t deserve to be among the Ballon d’Or finalists,” Dani Alves argued in December. “It’s not only about scoring goals.” Although the Barcelona-based Brazilian is clearly biased, he was, at least, right to point out that the Ballon d’Or is not solely about a prolific strike rate – or at least it shouldn’t be.
Like Messi, Ronaldo averaged just over a goal a game during the Ballon d’Or ‘year’ (November 22, 2014 to November 20, 2015) but the only trophy that the Portuguese lifted was the 2014 Club World Cup, at which he failed to net. Indeed, it is significant that while Ronaldo racked up a career-high 61 goals in all competitions by the end of the 2014-15 season, he did not get his hands on any major silverware – unlike Messi and Neymar, who both netted 10 times (the same amount as Ronaldo) in firing Barca to Champions League glory.
Ronaldo scored both of Madrid’s goals (a close-range header and a penalty) in their semi-final loss to Juventus but he failed to stamp his authority on either game. And that has been the troubling thing the longer the year has gone on. This term, Ronaldo has hit 25 goals in 24 outings but that statistic is misleading in the sense that he fired blanks against Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Barcelona and Valencia in La Liga, while he also went goalless in Madrid’s only two challenging Champions League ties, against Paris Saint-Germain.
It may merely be a blip, perhaps proof that Madrid were neither playing attractive nor effective football under former coach Rafael Benitez, with whom Ronaldo clearly didn’t enjoy a healthy relationship. However, the contrast with his two Ballon d’Or rivals could not have been greater. Not only did both Messi and Neymar score freely (and spectacularly) in 2015, they also turned in a string of iconic individual displays. That Messi (120) and Neymar (121) created far more chances than Ronaldo (81) during the Ballon d’Or year also appears to hint at the Madrid man’s declining all-round influence.
Of course, the South American duo were playing in an all-conquering team alongside another superstar in the shape of Suarez and that clearly boosted their numbers. Former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson has even suggested that the fact that Messi and Barca are a match made in heaven somehow diminishes the No.10’s achievements.
“Ronaldo could play for Millwall, QPR, Doncaster Rovers or anyone and he’d score a hat-trick,” the Scot stated last year. “I’m not sure Messi could do it. Ronaldo’s got two feet, he’s quick, he’s good in the air and he’s brave, though Messi’s brave too of course. I just think Messi is a Barcelona player.”
Whether Messi or Neymar are lucky to be plying their trade at Camp Nou is irrelevant, though. The fact remains that they are not only turning in sensational individual performances but also winning titles. That does not bode well for Ronaldo, as Barca’s domestic and European dominance only looks set to continue in 2016, making his future Ballon d’Or prospects appear even more bleak.
Of course, even if club titles evade Ronaldo once again this year, the European Championship represents an excellent opportunity to underline his greatness, given the traditional importance attached to major international tournaments for Ballon d’Or voters. The only issue here, of course, is that this does not look like a particularly strong Portugal side and, as was proven at the 2014 World Cup, Ronaldo is not capable of carrying the Seleccao on his shoulders. In addition, he will be 31 by the time the tournament rolls around, so it seems even more unlikely that he will be capable of doing in France what he could not do in Brazil.
Ronaldo, of course, is a fiercely driven character and will be determined to reclaim his crown. However, both Messi and Neymar have their own international agendas, with the Argentina captain desperate to finally end his wait for a major honour by leading his country to victory at the 2016 Copa America.
Neymar, too, has a shot at redemption in the United States. He dragged a distinctly average Brazil side into the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup only for injury to intervene. However, he let his nation – and himself – down at last year’s Copa America, by getting himself suspended for sparking a mass brawl with pure petulance in a group-stage loss to Colombia.
The Selecao skipper has shown greater maturity over the past six months, though, stepping up to the plate during Messi’s injury-enforced absence during the opening months of the 2015-16 season, merely underlining that he is the natural heir to his team-mate’s throne.
And that will be of even greater concern to Ronaldo and his army of fans. The Portuguese’s powers appear to be on the wane, whereas Messi is back to his brilliant best and Neymar is only getting better and better.
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