The list of nominees for the 2011 Ballon d'Or was announced earlier this week, with the 23 best players in the world during the 2011 calendar year.
Although it's not official yet, there are no doubts whatsoever that the winner will be Barcelona's Lionel Messi, for the third year in a row. The best player of this generation was so overwhelmingly dominating during this calendar year that it is absolutely unthinkable that anyone even gets near him in the vote.
The fight for second place will be a lot more interesting, with three absolutely superb players (all with the potential to be multiple winners of this award if Messi weren't around), three future Hall of Famers in contention to be named the second-best player of 2011. They are, of course, Messi's teammates and last year's finalists Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta, and the 2008 winner and recent Golden Boot winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
These three players have been sharing runner-up positions in best player awards over the past three years. Cristiano Ronaldo was second to Messi in 2009, while Iniesta took that position in 2010, with Xavi Hernandez third on both occasions and second in the recent first edition of the UEFA Player of the Year award.
All three players have been accomplishing remarkable things, with Ronaldo already one of finest goalscorers the game has ever seen and Xavi and Iniesta two of the best ever midfielders.
If they don't get all the recognition they deserve, it's because they're firmly in the shadows of Lionel Messi, arguably the most talented player of all eons and eras. But there is no doubt that Cristiano, Xavi and Andrés have already done enough (and will surely do even more in the coming years) to cement their place in the pantheon of football's all-time greats.
This piece makes a case for each of them as the second-best player of 2011, and why they deserve that distinction.
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If this was based on the players' entire careers, Xavi would take it hands down. His career has been nothing short of remarkable and the fact that he is still discussed among the very best players in the world months before turning 32 (a pretty advanced age for a footballer) is a testament to his greatness.
He might not be a scoring machine like Ronaldo or have Iniesta's elegance and flair, but he's the best in the world at what he does and arguably the best passer of the ball in football history.
2011 has been another brilliant year for Xavi. He pulled the strings in Barcelona's midfield, with more than 100 complete passes per game, incredible movement and creativity, and played a key role in the continental double won by the Catalan club. He further cemented himself as a Barcelona legend by becoming the holder of the record for most appearances with the club's jersey.
The main argument in favor of Xavi is his relentless consistency—it seems that the Spanish midfielder just doesn't know how to play poorly. He just keeps dictating the pace of every Barca game with no dips in form whatsoever. It was that consistency that earned him the second place in the recent first edition of the UEFA Player of the Year award and it might very well earn him the second place in the Ballon d'Or as well.
Xavi might not have stellar goals and assist statistics, but he's the one who makes it possible for the Barcelona forward players, namely Lionel Messi, to shine so brightly.
The Portguese winger is undeniably having the best year of his career, even better than 2008 when he won the award. The difference is that this year he's competing with three incredible players, so it's even conceivable, although not likely, that he might fail to make the top three despite the sensational year he's having.
Ronaldo's year has been nothing short of absolutely extraordinary. He has scored an amazing 42 goals so far in 2011 (only Lionel Messi has scored more, with 48), and he beat the record for most goals scored in a single La Liga season with 40 (in 34 matches), for which he has received the Golden Boot for best scorer in all European leagues, joining such illustrious names as Thierry Henry, Ally McCoist, Fernando Gomes, Gerd Muller and Mario Jardel as a multiple Golden Boot winner.
Perhaps frustratingly for the Portuguese forward, his efforts weren't enough to make Real even put pressure on Barcelona in La Liga and the Champions League in 2010/2011, which doesn't take anything away from his splendid individual performance. He has kept scoring in the new season and has also been assisting his teammates more than usual, thus becoming a more complete player than before.
He came third in the UEFA Player of the Year award and he has every chance to be in the top three again for the Ballon d'Or, as his spectacular year certainly warrants. The lack of major club trophies is the only significant stain on Ronaldo's otherwise stellar 2011 resumé.
If Xavi had a great season at Barcelona, the same can be said about Andrés Iniesta. After his amazing World Cup exploits, he finally had a full injury-free season for Barcelona where he displayed the full extent of his incredible talent and showed why he's one of the most gifted (if not the most gifted after Messi) players of this generation.
His elegance, close control and dribbling are simply unmatched in today's game. Back on the day Iniesta was called to train with the first-team squad for the first time, Guardiola (then a player) told his teammates: "Remember this day—the day you first played with Andrés." Pulling Xavi Hernández aside, he said: "You're going to retire me. This lad is going to retire us all."
Guardiola's prophecy has clearly come true. Today, when we see Iniesta, we see greatness, we see the best midfielder of this generation.
In 2011, not only has he been consistently brilliant, but he has been as clutch as usual, stepping his game up a notch in the most important matches. He put in Man of the Match performances in the second legs of every Barcelona tie last season in the Champions League and a great performance in the final against Manchester United.
Just like Xavi and Ronaldo, Iniesta has a very legitimate claim to the second place in this year's Ballon d'Or. If it were based on pure football ability (dribbling, vision, touch...), that spot would surely be Iniesta's. Based on performance during the year, it will surely be a close affair between these three great players, who will surely be separated by very few votes in the end.
Regardless of who finishes in second place, these three magnificent players, all so different yet all so fantastic to watch, are a reminder that there's a lot of greatness, all-time greatness, in the current generation of footballers apart from Lionel Messi.
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