Might Cristiano Ronaldo be adding a World Cup Golden Boot to his already cramped trophy cabinet?
The Portuguese winger is coming off one of the best years of his career. He won the 2013 Ballon d'Or in January, almost single-handedly carried Portugal through in the World Cup qualifying playoff against Sweden and scored the fourth and final goal in Real Madrid's 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final.
At 29 years old, this is likely to be the last international tournament of Cristiano Ronaldo as we know him now, before age forces him to adapt his game a little bit more.
There's no question that Ronaldo has the talent to win the award. He's one of the best footballers on the planet and already a legend in the game.
However, Portugal are one of those teams on the fringe of being a contender. They could win the whole thing, but their lack of a consistent No. 9 and Paulo Bento's more pragmatic tactics might mean an earlier exit than expected.
If that happens, Ronaldo might not have the amount of chances necessary to get to the top of the Golden Boot standings.
In order to win the Golden Boot, a player almost certainly has to be on a World Cup contender. The deeper a team goes, the more chances a player has to score.
Here's a look at the Golden Boot winners at the World Cup since 1954 and how far into the tournament their respective teams went.
|Just Fontaine||13||France||Third Place|
|Valentin Ivanov||---||Soviet Union||Quarterfinals|
|Leonel Sanchez||---||Chile||Third Place|
|Drazan Jerkovic||---||Yugoslavia||Fourth Place|
|Gerd Muller||10||West Germany||Third Place|
|Grzegorz Lato||7||Poland||Third Place|
|Salvatore Schillaci||6||Italy||Third Place|
|Hristo Stoichkov||6||Bulgaria||Fourth Place|
|Oleg Salenko||---||Russia||Group Stage|
|Davor Suker||6||Croatia||Third Place|
|Miroslav Klose||5||Germany||Third Place|
|Thomas Muller||5||Germany||Third Place|
Exiting in the group stage doesn't automatically prevent a player from winning the Golden Boot. A hat-trick here, a brace there and he's right in the thick of the race. Five goals was enough to win it four years ago.
More than likely, though, passage to the quarterfinals is the prerequisite for Golden Boot consideration.
The four players below have the right combination of scoring prowess, talent and opportunity.
Mario Balotelli, Italy
For the most part, Mario Balotelli has reined in the more combustible elements of his personality when putting on the national team shirt. Cesare Prandelli handles the mercurial striker with a calming hand, and for the most part, the results have been positive.
In an interview with Sports Mediaset in Italy (via Football Italia), Prandelli spoke about how "Super Mario" has performed in the past and how he has a golden chance to define his legacy in Brazil:
On Balotelli, I have always said that in the national team he has never behaved outside the rules. He has played important matches, he has a very high goal average and I value him for what he has done and still does in an Azzurri shirt. He knows that the World Cup can be the opportunity of a lifetime for a footballer.
There's always the chance that Balotelli has a massive meltdown at the 2014 World Cup. As great as Euro 2012 was for the AC Milan striker, things could've come undone had Leonardo Bonucci not been there to silence him after he scored against Ireland.
Italy have a tough group, but one that isn't impossible from which to qualify for the knockout stages. The Azzurri have experience playing in Brazil from last year's Confederations Cup, so the tropical climate won't be anything new.
If Prandelli's men make a deep run, you can bet that Balotelli will have played a big role in making it happen.
Sergio Aguero, Argentina
Between the quality of their squad, relatively easy draw and South American advantage, Argentina are poised to make a deep run. With as many world-class attackers as La Albiceleste have, somebody from this squad should be in the Golden Boot hunt.
Any one of Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi makes a strong case. When analyzing the trio, Aguero might be the best bet. As the more recognized No. 9, Higuain might find himself hemmed in more often by opposing defences. Messi may end up playing the role of facilitator rather than finisher given his skill set and standing the team's captain.
Injuries limited Aguero to 23 Premier League appearances, so he may have a chip on his shoulder coming into Brazil.
That's exactly what opposing teams won't want to see. Aguero is a world-class finisher who always seems to make the right runs and get into attacking positions.
Karim Benzema, France
Karim Benzema hasn't had the best of times in a national team shirt, so the 2014 World Cup offers the perfect chance for a cathartic release.
Writing for ESPN FC, French football expert Jonathan Johnson explained that the 26-year-old can silence many of his doubters with a strong performance in Brazil:
The World Cup is a major opportunity to prove beyond all doubt that he deserves his reputation as a player of the highest quality. Ribery’s waning form, and that fact that he failed to truly step up in either game against Ukraine when Les Bleus needed him most, make it more important than ever for the real Benzema to show himself. Should he fail to do so, (Didier) Deschamps -- assuming that France’s Brazilian sojourn is not a complete disaster and he remains in charge -- will be under immense pressure to dispense with his star man’s services once and for all ahead of Euro 2016.
Whether Deschamps opts for a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, Benzema should be the primary forward ahead of Olivier Giroud.
As a whole, France look ready to make a massive rebound from four years ago, when the players famously protested then-coach Raymond Domenech en route to a last-place finish in the group.
Deschamps' more personal approach has helped build some unity in the squad, and the confidence that he's shown in Benzema has helped to bring out the best of the Real Madrid striker.
Dark Horse: Aleksandr Kokorin, Russia
Russia are moving from one Aleksandr to another.
Aleksandr Kerzhakov was a disaster at Euro 2012, missing chance after chance. As a result, he's made way for Aleksandr Kokorin.
The 23-year-old contributed four goals in eight qualifying matches for Russia. Although the Dinamo Moscow striker is more suited as a secondary striker, he's the likeliest candidate to lead the line in Fabio Capello's 4-1-4-1 formation.
Capello's tactics are a pragmatic contrast to those of Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink. The goals have to come from somewhere, though, and Kokorin is Russia's best attacker. You could see him scoring three in the group stage and then nabbing one or two more in the knockout stages.