By Sam Lee
Some have won international honours, some have won league titles, some have won both. Lionel Messi has won neither. The mercurial Argentine, however, is still regarded as the most likely of the four main contenders to claim the Fifa Ballon d’Or in January thanks to yet another record-breaking year.
The prestigious award has been more controversial than ever in 2012, with many speculating that Cristiano Ronaldo’s recent sadness in Madrid stems from his club’s backing of Iker Casillas, while others point to the reported pleasure of his Spanish club-mates at seeing Andres Iniesta lift Uefa’s Best Player in Europe Award.
Messi, Ronaldo, Casillas and Iniesta will go head-to-head on Sunday in yet another instalment of El Clasico – the 13th in around 18 months – and whether it is at the front of their minds or not, an impressive performance at Camp Nou could swing the voting in their favour.
Whether Messi bags a hat-trick, Iniesta directs the traffic, Casillas pulls out all the stops or Ronaldo tears apart a beleaguered Blaugrana defence, a groundbreaking performance will be fresh in the minds of voters when it comes to the crunch.
It has been a successful year for Iker Casillas, and it has also been a strange one. After conceding late equalisers from direct free-kicks against Malaga and Villarreal in successive weeks, the Spain No.1 was coming under fire from madridistas and pundits as Madrid’s trundle to the title appeared to be coming off the rails.
But they recovered, and so did San Iker. Los Blancos secured La Liga by racking up a record 100 points and 121 goals, but they also conceded just 21 times, a stat that is often overlooked. But despite saving two penalties in the Champions League semi-final shoot-out against Bayern Munich, Madrid’s search for the fabled decima came to an abrupt end.
He was not to be denied, though, and after saving another semi-final spot-kick, this time against Portugal in Donetsk, he went on to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy with Spain.
Indeed, his solid performances at Euro 2012 have earned him many plaudits, and a number of former players have since called for him to win this year’s Fifa Ballon d’Or. It is rumoured that many within the Santiago Bernabeu would prefer him to win the award over club-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, but, realistically, he would have to put in a truly legendary goalkeeping performance on Sunday to get his safe hands on yet another trophy.
It has been yet another understated but classy year for Andres Iniesta. His stats may not leap off the page like his main rivals for the award, but his performances certainly do.
He has played fewer games than his three competitors, but he has arguably had the biggest impact on the biggest triumph of the year – Spain winning their third successive major international tournament.
He was La Roja’s main protagonist as they stuttered through their Euro 2012 opener against Italy, but he maintained that level of performance throughout the summer and his team-mates quickly stepped up to his level and won the trophy with the minimum of fuss.
Domestically, Iniesta did not have it his own way as Pep Guardiola’s last season at Camp Nou ended in relative disappointment. But he provided a typically perfect through-ball for Lionel Messi to add the second goal in the 3-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao as Barcelona claimed the Copa del Rey.
With the Euro 2012 Golden Ball and Uefa’s Best Player in Europe gong already in the bag, he clearly has influential supporters, too. Journalists, coaches and players have shown an appreciation of his style in the last 12 months, and it would be no big surprise if he were to make it a hat-trick of individual awards in January.
If you are the kind of person who wants stats to jump off the page and slap you in the face, then Lionel Messi’s your man. What more can you say about him, really? He has hit the net 63 times for club and country this year alone at a rate of over one per match, and has laid on a goal for his team-mates almost once every two games.
He is in the best goal-scoring form of his life, and in an incredible year he has scored at least three goals in one match on eight separate occasions, including in March when he became the first player to hit five in a single modern-format Champions League match, as well as a breathtaking hat-trick for his country in a friendly against Brazil in June.
Jose Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have both suggested that he should not win the Fifa Ballon d’Or because he has not won any major trophies this year. They may have a point, but they also have two of the biggest egos in the sport, and are two men who have had their pride hurt by Messi on numerous occasions.
Messi did, in fact, help Barca to the Copa del Rey, but that is beside the point. The award is in place to recognise the best footballer and he is, quite simply, the best on the planet.
Euro 2012 was billed as Ronaldo’s big chance to wrest the Fifa Ballon d’Or from rival Messi, and it looked as though he was going to let it slip through his fingers. But after two lacklustre displays against Germany and Denmark, he was brilliant against Netherlands and Czech Republic.
His two impressive performances were so good that observers quickly forgot his previous misgivings, but marginalisation and elimination at the hands of Spain meant that he is by no means certain of landing the award that many believe he craves.
Of course, he was in blistering form in La Liga and played a big part in Real Madrid’s record-breaking season – not least with his match-winning goal and captain’s performance at Camp Nou in April that all but sealed the title. And with two hat-tricks in his last two outings this season, he is going the same way again.
But he came up short in the Champions League semi against Bayern by missing a crucial shoot-out penalty, and, all in all, doubts remain as far as 2012 is concerned.
He is undoubtedly one of the finest footballers around, and also one of the most influential. But he is, for one reason or another, generally unpopular, and if, as rumours suggest, he is not favoured to win the award even by his own club-mates, then he has little chance of ousting that man Messi in the vote.
Unless he shines on Sunday.
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