5 Players Other Than Messi and Ronaldo Who Could Win 2013 Ballon D'Or
Lionel Messi had the Ballon d'Or under deft control long before the drawn-out ceremony in Zurich. The Barcelona star left his brilliant brushstrokes all over 2012, scoring 91 goals and being as generous with his genius as any player before him.
It was the fourth year in succession Messi has been crowned best player on the planet. The 25-year-old is without peer in the modern game and already the firm favorite to win the 2013 Ballon d'Or.
Cristiano Ronaldo will be cast as the man most likely to stop him. The Real Madrid star drove his team to the Spanish title last season and showed flashes of his flamboyant best at Euro 2012, but he still fell short of Messi in the FIFA voting last year.
Ronaldo won the prize in 2008 and it took Manchester United winning the Champions League to bring it home. Ronaldo will need to knock United out in the last 16 and win Europe's biggest prize with Madrid to outrank Messi in 2013.
That's assuming it'll come down to Messi vs. Ronaldo, the foremost superpowers of the modern game.
What if it doesn't? What if somebody else leaves both men in the shade this year?
Is it conceivable that a player could beat both Messi and Ronaldo to the Ballon d'Or in 2013?
Here are five men with a chance.
Robin van Persie
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Robin van Persie was unlucky to miss out on the FIFA/FiFpro 2012 XI, after being crowned PFA Player of the Year and making considerable contributions to the fortunes of both Arsenal and Manchester United.
United's move to sign the Dutchman over the summer looks more inspired with every heroic act from their new talisman. Van Persie has made Old Trafford a natural home and is playing some of the best football of his career.
United's elegant assassin was sublime in 2012. If he can produce more of the same in 2013, lead United to the Premier League title and at least to the Champions League final, there's a chance he could pip Messi and Ronaldo this time next year.
He scores when he wants, but that's not the problem. The big concern for Van Persie's Ballon d'Or prospects is the fact United concede when they don't want to.
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic produced some dazzling moments of brilliance in 2012, not least his four-goal blitz of England, which was capped by the most extraordinary goal of the year.
The Swede is scoring goals for PSG (18 in 16 Ligue 1 games this season) and the French side are through to the last 16 of the Champions League, where they should get past Valencia to reach the quarterfinals.
For Zlatan to win the Ballon d'Or, PSG would have to win the Champions League. In a year without a major international tournament to play for, there's simply no other route to the award for a player in the French league.
Can they do it? If the draw is kind and Ibrahimovic starts delivering in Europe like he has domestically his entire career, then it's possible.
Can you imagine Zlatan's face if he pipped Messi to the prize?
Franck Ribery's talent has never been in question. The 29-year-old can turn a game and has been a big part of Bayern Munich's dominant start to the Bundesliga season.
What if Bayern finished the season as German and European champions? It that happens, surely it becomes conceivable that one of their players might win the Ballon d'Or—beating off Messi and Ronaldo to become the first Bundesliga-based player to win since Lothar Matthaus in 1991.
Ribery would need to produce with more consistency than at any time in his career. And he'd need to do something special in the Champions League final.
Even that might not be enough, so let's throw in a few starring performances for France in their World Cup qualifiers this year. It's a long shot, but Ribery has the gifts at his disposal if he can truly get hold of them.
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With Bayern Munich streets clear in the Bundesliga, there's only one way to the Ballon d'Or for Mario Gotze, and that's leading Borussia Dortmund to Champions League glory.
Could it happen? Absolutely, it could. Dortmund have been arguably the best team in Europe this season, and their young team outclassed Real Madrid and Manchester City in the group stage to reach the last 16.
For Gotze to win he'd need to sparkle from here to the final, then put in a coming-of-age performance at Wembley to see Jurgen Klopp's exciting outfit to European football's ultimate club prize.
He'd then need to be complicit, as Dortmund began the 2012-13 domestic and European season with such force they left Bayern looking a poor second in Germany.
Stephan El Shaarawy
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Let's finish with the longest long shot of them all.
What if Stephan El Shaarawy, somehow, miraculously inspires AC Milan to the most unlikely of Champions League triumphs. It's highly implausible, but so was Chelsea beating Barcelona and then Bayern Munich in their own back yard in 2012.
For it to happen, El Shaarawy would have to showcase the kind of virtuoso brilliance we've seen in Serie A this season. And he'd have to do it relentlessly from here to the Champions League final, starting by outplaying Messi in Milan's last-16 tie against Barcelona.
Could it happen? Almost certainly not. But if it did and El Shaarawy also took his goals to the Italian national team, rising from bright young starlet to proven world-class performer, we might just have a new rival for Messi and Ronaldo to fight off.