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Ballon d'Or 2014: Forecasting Most Likely Challengers to Cristiano Ronaldo

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Ballon d'Or 2014: Forecasting Most Likely Challengers to Cristiano Ronaldo
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Lionel Messi figures to provide Ronaldo's stiffest challenge to repeating.

The 2013 Ballon d'Or is only hours old and Cristiano Ronaldo will want to savor his long-awaited award for much longer. 

FIFA announced the voters' decision Monday, Jan. 13:

However, the world soccer scale never stops, and with the end of league seasons and the World Cup coming up in 2014, there is no shortage of opportunities to make a statement for next year's award on a massive stage.

Ronaldo was the favorite coming in and earned recognition as the world's top footballer for the first time since 2008, at least for a year. He will almost surely put forth a strong repeat effort as one of a small handful of contenders.

But who stands the best chance of unseating Ronaldo for the 2014 award? Here are the three players most likely to take home the hardware in a year's time.

 

Lionel Messi

The Barcelona striker had an injury-plagued 2013 that resulted in a dip in production, at least by Messi's otherworldly standards. Now healthy again, Messi is poised to reclaim an award that he had won four years in a row.

The South American World Cup will provide him a golden opportunity, as delivering Argentina its second World Cup victory would make him a monumental favorite to take back the award.

Messi was more of a distributor in South Africa and even failed to score but was nevertheless nominated for the Golden Ball at the end of the tournament. He is poised to wreak even greater havoc in Brazil as an all-around terror for an already potent Argentinian squad, and a deep run will greatly aid his cause.

On the club side, Messi's Barcelona squad are locked in a tight three-way race with Ronaldo's Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid for the La Liga title. Of course, Barca ran away with the title last season and that did little to aid Messi's cause for a fifth consecutive Ballon d'Or. 

However, provided he remains healthy for the next 12 months, Messi is the clear odds-on favorite to climb back atop his familiar perch as the best player in the world.

 

Luis Suarez

Many have anointed Luis Suarez as the player currently playing the best football in the world, a title he will need to sustain for at least a few more months to garner legitimate consideration.

Suarez's massive scoring flurry at the end of 2013 has made him the likeliest winner outside of Messi and Ronaldo. The Liverpool striker has lapped the Premier League in point production, with 22 goals at just over halfway through the season.

Liverpool were not expected to contend; while the Reds have fallen off after a brief stay at the top, they remain firmly in contention for a Champions League berth, a testament to Suarez's first-half dominance. Qualifying for the Champions League and performing well (i.e, helping Liverpool out of the group stages) should put Suarez in firm contention for the award.

Like Messi, Suarez will have a tremendous opportunity to shine at the World Cup on his home continent. Uruguay finished fourth in 2010, and while they are not among the favorites to lift the trophy, they could surprise in favorable home conditions.

Suarez's infamous handball in South Africa remains one of the black eyes over his career, and this summer provides an opportunity for redemption.

 

Neymar

Of course, the World Cup means more to young Barcelona superstar Neymar than perhaps any individual player. Bringing a sixth World Cup to Brazil on home turf would make the 21-year-old not only a national hero but also a player capable of matching Messi and Ronaldo in form.

Neymar does face the difficulty of not even being the best player on his club team, and it will be difficult to shine in the shadow of Messi. But Neymar is already knocking on the door and the precocious striker figures to take a step closer in 2014, as WeAreMadrid10 suggests on Twitter considering this year's results:

Brazil provides an opportunity for him to shine without Messi flanking him and perhaps even in direct competition against his teammate. He has not dominated in his inaugural La Liga campaign, but 14 points in 16 games is nothing to sneeze at. Increased league production coupled with a signature summer performance should at least put Neymar in the top three next year.

Even if Messi and Ronaldo remain ahead of him, as is most likely, Neymar's status as the top footballer in the world seems like a matter of time. The World Cup simply supplies an opportunity to accelerate that timeline, and it would be a shock if he were not among the top performers in 2014.

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