Every year since 2017, B/R Football has split the year into fours and run Ballon d'Or rankings after every quarter.
The goal? To gauge players' calendar-year performances and statistics, then create an informed shortlist of who might have put themselves in the running for the award. It is, essentially, "if the Ballon d'Or was awarded now, who would get it?"
In a typical year, it only forms a sliver of the picture—particularly the March edition—as there's so much more football to be played, and almost all of the deciding factors (Champions League finals, international trophies) are still to come.
But with the coronavirus pandemic shutting football down around the world for the foreseeable future—even sparking questions over whether the season will finish at all—the period we've just completed could be more important than ever.
Before scrolling down, it's worth reminding yourself of a key distinction when it comes to this award: The Ballon d'Or is a calendar-year award, so we have taken into account solely what has happened from January to now. Whatever happened in the first half of the season, in 2019, is irrelevant and not considered.
15. Sadio Mane, Liverpool
Mane's 2020 goal/assist output has dropped a little, but that's deceiving. He's still the epicentre of the attack, creating, conjuring and affecting, and he has been Liverpool's best performer this year.
14. Thomas Muller, Bayern Munich
After a couple of subpar years, and even some questions over his future at Bayern, Muller has returned to elite level. This is the best we've seen from him since Pep Guardiola's time in Munich during the mid-2010s; five goals and five assists in 2020 underline his resurgence.
13. Casemiro, Real Madrid
Casemiro is playing the best football of his career and fulfilling three roles at once: destroyer (his forte), creator (a newer development) and support striker (he's making more runs into the box than ever). He's their MVP.
12. Jadon Sancho, Borussia Dortmund
Sancho's season has been incredibly productive; in 2020 alone he's racked up five goals and six assists, managing one of each in three straight games to kick off his year. He's lacking that big UEFA Champions League performance to vault him into the top 10, though.
11. Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City
City as a team have struggled to hit their best levels consistently this season, meaning De Bruyne has had to step forward more often than usual to make the difference.
He was spectacular against Real Madrid in the 2-1 win in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie and already has a trophy (Carabao Cup) to his name this year. That's good early going.
10. Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund
Key stat: five goals in his first 57 minutes as a Dortmund player
Haaland's breakout in 2019-20 came as no surprise—he was clearly primed for it—but no one could have imagined the full extent of his rapid rise.
For him to be on this list is quite something. Back in August, he was preparing to embark on his first full season with Red Bull Salzburg; six Champions League goals later, he's a Dortmund player, and then things get really wild.
Twelve goals in black and yellow already, thanks in part to one of the hottest starts in history—five goals in his first 57 Bundesliga minutes—then a thrilling brace against Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their round-of-16 Champions League tie.
Only two players have scored more goals than him in 2020, and it's arguable none have made a bigger short-term, transformative impact.
9. Thiago Alcantara, Bayern Munich
Key stat: 10 key passes in nine games this year
Thiago is a benefactor of the Ballon d'Or's odd judging period. The first half of his season was far from elite, but since the calendar flipped, his level has been sky-high, meaning he's used his time wisely if he's on the hunt for a Ballon d'Or.
His lift in performances has coincided with Bayern's rise in form; as they've repositioned themselves as a serious footballing force, Thiago has re-emerged as a top-tier midfield technician, capable of controlling and dominating games.
He scored in three straight games across January and February, has impressed with his poise on the ball as usual and has also added a grittier side—evidenced by his career-high number of yellow cards in 2019-20.
Aesthetics are a big part of football, and Thiago is about as smooth and silky as they come. That works in his favour in this ranking.
8. Angel Di Maria, Paris Saint-Germain
Key stat: nine assists in 2020
At age 32, Di Maria is experiencing something of a second wind in his career.
He's in the running for PSG's player of the season award, tussling with various glamorous names for that title, and he's right here, too, on the periphery of the Ballon d'Or conversation.
The focus understandably falls on Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in Paris, but this Les Rouge et Bleu side feel a little different this time around. They feel like genuine Champions League contenders because manager Thomas Tuchel has constructed a system in which the "others" can thrive too, such as Di Maria.
His work rate and consistency have been pillars to build on, and he's been historically creative, too, registering nine assists this year thanks to some clever passing and arrow-like set pieces.
7. Ciro Immobile, Lazio
Key stat: 11 goals (two braces, one hat-trick) in 2020
It would be quite easy to pass over Immobile's name in the Ballon d'Or stakes because he's not a traditional superstar, but why should that fact count him out?
No player in Europe's top five leagues this season has more goals than him (27), and 11 of those have come this year as his hot "streak" has developed into a seven-month demolition of Serie A defences.
The 30-year-old is your definition of a late bloomer, only in the last few seasons emerging as a top player having tried and failed with spells at Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla.
Now, he's Serie A's top scorer, on pace for a record number of goals if the league continues, and is Italy's No. 9. Life comes at you fast.
6. Kylian Mbappe, Paris Saint-Germain
Key stat: 12 goals, eight assists in 2020—no one has more combined.
Mbappe can make football look so easy.
We're at the stage where Ligue 1's best of the rest can't get close to him, a fact highlighted by his individual trouncing (hat-trick in 5-1 win) of Lyon in the Coupe de France in March, and his incredible 2020 output of 12 goals and eight assists in all competitions.
Crucially, though, he doesn't have a strong Champions League performance to point to right now. He may have grabbed an assist against Dortmund in February, but he played poorly overall (Tuchel's strange tactics played a part in this), and he didn't start the second leg because of illness.
So, where you rate Mbappe's Ballon d'Or case right now depends heavily on how highly you value big-game performances against run-of-the-mill domestic games. In this ranking, he suffers slightly in comparison to some of the other star-studded names.
5. Neymar, Paris Saint-Germain
Key stat: nine goals, four assists in 10 games. Goals in both round-of-16 legs.
Neymar is one of the world's best footballers, so for him not to even make the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d'Or in 2019 will have stung. That's a dramatic failure when you consider his aspirations and personal goals.
Perhaps it's lit a fire under him—the way he's performed of late, you could argue that's the case.
As always, Neymar's Ballon d'Or claim lives and dies according to two things: his own fitness and PSG's impact in the Champions League.
He's off to a good start having already played a crucial part in guiding PSG to the quarter-finals, netting in both round-of-16 legs to defeat Borussia Dortmund. While he had a rib injury, it didn't force him to miss crucial games.
It should be more of the same when football returns, and he could set himself up for a memorable year.
4. Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich
Key stat: nine goals, three assists in eight games
Lewandowski kept Bayern afloat before Christmas, with his goals papering over a lot of cracks in the side. Now with Hansi Flick in charge and the machine repaired, oiled and rolling, he's arguably the scariest No. 9 in Europe.
Goals have never been hard to come by for Lewandowski, but he feels particularly ominous and prolific right now. With nine goals and three assists in just eight games, it's clear few are able to prevent him from having a telling effect on the game.
RB Leipzig are the only one side to have held Lewandowski goalless or assistless this year, and that took a brilliant performance from Dayot Upamecano in the heart of defence to do so.
He's a complete forward, capable of finishing moves, scoring every type of goal and constructing play for others. And he does all of that in every game, every week.
3. Lionel Messi, Barcelona
Key stat: three assists vs. Real Betis, four goals vs. Eibar
There were plenty of confused faces when the reigning Ballon d'Or winner went four games without finding the net in February. That just doesn't really happen—or so we assumed.
Assuaging any potential concerns was the fact that in lieu of goals, Messi registered six assists, a hat-trick of them coming against Real Betis, a team he's made a habit of saving his mercurial best for.
Even when he's not scoring (and he usually is), he's making up for it in other ways—and he ended that mini-drought with a four-goal blitz against Eibar anyway.
As you'd expect, Messi is in the early running for the 2020 Ballon d'Or.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus
Key stat: scored in nine straight games
A clear trend has emerged in Ronaldo's play over the years: In autumn and early winter he can go a little quiet, but when the calendar flips and football gets serious, he cranks things up a notch or two.
2019-20 has followed this rhythm: Ronaldo managed just 10 club goals between August and December, but since the turn of the year he's scored 13—besting that tally in approximately half the games.
He began 2020 with a hat-trick against Cagliari and used that as a platform to go on a real tear, netting in nine straight games in all competitions.
What counts against his case for the Ballon d'Or as it stands, though, is his (and his team's) no-show in the round-of-16 first leg with Lyon, which they lost 1-0. Right now, we can't point to a typical big-game performance from Ronaldo—though you'd imagine that's coming, likely against Lyon in the second leg when football finally returns.
1. Josip Ilicic, Atalanta
Key stat: 14 goals in 2020, five in the Champions League round of 16
Just as we all suspected, the best player in 2020 so far has been...32-year-old Atalanta forward Ilicic.
He's always been talented, but coach after coach has struggled to extract any measure of consistency from him—until he joined forces with Gian Piero Gasperini.
Ilicic has had a fantastic season—a particularly phenomenal last three months. No one has scored more goals than him in 2020 (14); no player has scored more hat-tricks (two); no one else has netted from practically the halfway line.
The Slovenian has waltzed through games as Atalanta have racked up huge scorelines in Serie A and the Champions League, slamming home finish after finish with trademark bend off his left foot.
He's been thrilling, fun, productive, and he has played consistently on the highest stage possible. He lacks the name power Ronaldo, Neymar and Messi boast, but he's been better than all of them this year so far.
Ronaldo and Messi have dominated this award over the last decade, with it taking a Champions League-winning and World Cup runner-up year from Luka Modric to break things up, so Ilicic would need some set of events to actually win it.
But on the pool of evidence we have so far, he'd deserve it the most.
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