Robert Lewandowski and Mohamed Salah in race for Ballon d’Or

FIFA Ballon d'Or nominees Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo smile during the FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala 2014 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
FIFA Ballon d'Or nominees Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo smile during the FIFA Ballon d'Or Gala 2014 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images) /
Ballon d'Or
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo smile during the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala 2014 in Zurich, Switzerland. This year, new faces like Mohamed Salah and Robert Lewandowski could take the award. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images) /

We are used to the Ballon d’Or being a two-horse race. What we are not used to, however, is that the top two contenders for the title of the world’s best player are not named Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.

The winner of the Ballon d’Or will be announced at an event in Paris on Nov. 29 and there is a real feeling that there are only two players who should be considered for the title. These are Bayern Munich and Poland striker Robert Lewandowski and Liverpool and Egypt talisman Mohamed Salah.

Lewandowski can consider himself incredibly unlucky that the Ballon d’Or was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, as he was almost certain to win the top prize. Rather than wallow in disappointment, the 33-year-old has again taken his game to another level in 2021. Peter Crouch recently said while on punditry duty for BT Sport that it would be a “travesty” if Lewandowksi doesn’t win a Ballon d’Or in his lifetime,.

It seems the only man who could realistically stand in the Poland record goal-scorer’s way is Salah. While Salah has not won anything with his club or country in 2021, it is hard to argue with his level of performance across the year. Lewandowski can boast the Bundesliga title but a second round exit in the domestic cup and a quarterfinal exit in the Champions League represented an arguably disappointing campaign last season.

The end of the Messi-Ronaldo era of Ballon d’Or dominance?

Since Kaka won the award in 2007, there has been more than a decade of complete dominance in the Ballon d’Or rankings for Messi and Ronaldo. The only player that has been able to break the duo’s run of successive Ballon d’Ors was Luka Modric in 2018. After a season in which Modric’s Real Madrid side won the Champions League, the midfielder then guided Croatia to an unlikely World Cup final appearance that summer.

While Modric undoubtedly had a fine 2018, it is dubious whether he genuinely outperformed Ronaldo and Messi that year. If anything, Ronaldo and Messi’s standards had been so high for so long that there was a real appetite for a new winner of the award.

This time around it feels different. There is a feeling that with Ronaldo now 36 and Messi 34, this could finally spell the end of the pair’s dominance of football’s top individual award and the door is now ajar for others to stake their claims.

Still, Messi’s Copa America win with Argentina over the summer still means he is in with a sniff of the award. The magician has also produced 40 goals and 14 assists in 52 appearances in 2021.

Ronaldo also recorded impressive numbers in 2021, scoring 42 goals and recording five assists in 57 appearances. However, both Messi and Ronaldo had disappointing campaigns with their clubs, with Barcelona and Juventus finishing third and fourth in their domestic leagues, respectively.

The remarkable numbers behind Lewandowski and Salah

Another player  touted for the award this year is Chelsea and Italy midfielder Jorginho. This has echoes of Modric’s 2018 triumph with Jorginho in the running due to winning both the Champions League and the European Championship. While these are the two biggest European competitions you can win as a footballer, the Ballon d’Or is ultimately an individual award.

It is extremely difficult for even the most staunch of Chelsea and Italy fans to make the argument that Jorginho has been the best player on the planet this season.

Lewandowski and Salah, however, broke records this year.

Lewandowski broke the long-standing Gerd Muller record of Bundesliga goals in a season (40), scoring an astonishing 41 goals in 29 Bundesliga games.

Salah became the first opposition player to ever score a Premier League hat-trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford and, in doing so, became the highest scoring African in Premier League history. His 107 Premier League goals put him ahead of Didier Drogba’s 104. What makes this all the more spectacular is the fact that Salah managed this in 86 fewer games than the Ivorian.

Lewandowski boasts the highest efficiency of the two, managing a remarkable 1.26 goals per game as of Oct. 27, 2021. The striker is currently on 53 goals for the year and it would come as no surprise if he nets a few more before the award is presented. Salah’s goals per game is lower at 0.75 goals, meaning he has scored one fewer than Messi and Ronaldo with 30 goals.

In terms of level of performance though, Salah’s recent display against Manchester City led to many coming to the conclusion he is currently performing at the highest level of anyone in football.

Salah scored once and assisted the other against City, with his goal a fine solo effort. A week later, he repeated the trick against Watford, weaving through the defense at will and notching a goal and assist. The following week saw him run riot at Old Trafford, scoring a hat-trick and condemning United to a 5-0 defeat.

What goes against Messi most is his surprisingly slow start to life in France. France is not considered a top five European league in UEFA’s coefficient and yet Messi has failed to score or assist in his five league games for Paris Saint-Germain. He has managed three goals in the Champions League this season, but by his standards this is a very slow start to the season.

Ronaldo has managed five goals and one assist in the league following the fanfare of his return to Manchester United. In the Champions League, he has scored five in four matches and seems determined to drag an underperforming United side up to his level.

In terms of all-round performance, though, Ronaldo is starting to fade. This is understandable given the fact he is 36. He is still a relentless goal scorer but in terms of overall contribution to his team, his powers have faded. Messi will likely bounce back from his difficult start to life in Paris, but neither are currently performing at the consistent high level of Lewandowski and Salah.

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Is this the start of a new era for the Ballon d’Or, where the award becomes passed around football’s elite far more frequently than Messi and Ronaldo have allowed us to become accustomed to?