2022 Ballon d'Or aspirants bow out of the Champions League
Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Mbappé and Haaland hoped to be in the running for this year's Ballon d'Or but their clubs have been eliminated from the Champions League.
During the past 14 years, the Ballon d'Or has been almost exclusively been the preserve of two players - Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but as things stand, it is looking unlikely that either of them will be crowned the best player in the world when this year's gala takes place in the autumn. Messi picked up the award for a record seventh time last year - an outcome which produced more debate than usual; but even those who have been tipped as heirs to the crown which Messi and Cristiano have either shared or swapped between them over more than a decade, are no longer on the main stage which has a big influence on who is proclaimed the best player in Europe - the Champions League.
The football world has watched in awe as Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappé, the two players regarded to be Messi and Cristiano's successors, have dazzled at their respective clubs - Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain. But they too are out of this season's European competitions - the Germans bowed out of the Champions League at the group stage and PSG were eliminated in the last round by Real Madrid. That will damage both players' credentials when voting time comes around this summer.
Cristiano Ronaldo was the most recent star to bow out of the Champions League after Manchester United exited at the hands of Atlético. The Portuguese forward decided to return to United in an attempt to rekindle past glories but times have moved on. Without Sir Alex Ferguson's guidance, he has given the best he has to give, but United are no longer the force they once were. His numbers aren't so bad - 18 goals and three assists but it looks like United will go another season without silverware and Cristiano won't be able to put his case forward with the team out of Europe.
Messi and Mbappé's Champions League campaign was cut short by Real Madrid. The French forward was PSG's standout figure in both legs of the Last 16 tie and gave a good account of himself amid talk of him coming to the Bernabéu on a permanent deal in the summer. Kylian was a constant nuisance for Madrid's back four and scored both of his team's goals in the tie and also had one chalked off. Individually, he is enjoyed a decent season - he's on 26 goals and 17 assists and joint-top scorer in Ligue 1 with 15 goals, level with Ben Yedder. But players in other leagues have scored more - Robert Lewandowski has already almost twice his tally in the Bundesliga and leads the Golden Shoe ranking on 29 goals. Mbappé has not risen to the occasion in the big games and PSG's objective - to win the Champions League is in tatters yet again.
That was the main reason why they signed Messi last year. The Argentinean picked up his seventh Ballon d'Or in November - possibly his last. His figures this season are low by his standards - seven goals and 11 assists and being dumped out of the Champions League is a huge blow to his chances of being one of the three candidates for this year's Ballon d'Or. Pochettino has been playing him in a deeper role, with Mbappé as the team's focus up front, so he is rarely in a position to score. He creates chances and works well for the team, but he is nowhere near as decisive as before. Even if he redeems himself by winning the World Cup with Argentina, it will be too late for Messi to clinch the Ballon d'Or with his current figures.
Haaland's season has been dogged by injury problems, and that has been what has stopped him from really getting into his stride. Various different fitness issues hampered his progress in Europe - he made just three appearances in this season's Champions League and only played one full game (against Ajax). The other two were against Besiktas in which he scored three goals over both games. His absence was one of the reasons why Dortmund failed to advance to the Last 16 and ended up playing the Europa League, where they were eliminated by Rangers with Haaland again unavailable through injury. Despite that, his figures are good - 21 games, 23 goals and six assists, although his only chance of silverware is if Dortmund win the Bundesliga. At the moment, the team trails Bayern by seven points which means they have a lot of ground to make up for that to happen. He will surely be back in the spotlighht in 2022/23 - and maybe at a new club.
Lewandowski, Benzema, Salah, Griezmann, De Bruyne...
The way it is looking, there will be a new Ballon d'Or winner this year for the first time since Luka Modric broke the Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly when he lifted the award in 2018. For BeSoccer Pro, Lewandowski and Benzema are the leading candidates, based on the Elo rating system.
The Covid-19 pandemic led to the 2020 Ballon d'Or being cancelled - just when Robert Lewandowski, who had won the treble with Bayern, looked favourite to win for the first time. The Polish striker finished runner-up last year and will be among the candidates again this year. He has scored 29 goals in 26 games in the league with Bayern and a further 12 and three assists in the Champions League. With Bayern in the quarter finals, a good run would help Lewy to boost his chances of picking up an individual award which has somehow always eluded him.
Real Madrid's Karim Benzema is enjoying one of his best seasons since joining the club in 2009. He's the man the team looks to, their leader - as he showed when Madrid turned their tie against PSG around to book their place in the quarter finals. Karim is the top scorer in LaLiga with 22 goals and the joint-third top scorer in the Champions League, on eight goals - the same as Liverpool's Mohamed Salah. Madrid top LaLiga table and have a chance to go far in The Champions League. Karim will also be looking for success with France in this summer's Nations League.
In England, Liverpool's Mo Salah is having another brillant season. Klopp's troops clinched the EFL Carabao Cup last month and are hot on Manchester City's heels in the race to win the Premier League. On top of that, the team is in the quarter finals of the Champions League and the FA Cup. Salah has contributed 28 goals and 10 assists. In Europe, he has found the net, on average, every 81 minutes (eight goals in as many games). Virgil Van Dijk, the soul of the current Liverpool side, should also be added to the list - he has been key to the club's return to Europe's elite.
As for City, it's difficult to single out one standout performer. João Cancelo is enjoyed a superb season - argulably the best of his career so far, while Kevin de Bruyne will surely be among the candidates again this year. The Belgian midfielder is an artist when it comes down to directing play and creating moves. City are back in with a chance of being crowned European champions after missing out in last year's final with De Bruyne leaving the pitch injured. He is a key component in one of the best teams on the planet, in terms of play and results.