Sergio Aguero "had nothing more to achieve" before his unfortunate early retirement, according to fellow Argentina forward Gonzalo Higuain.

Aguero was forced to call time on his illustrious career last December due to a heart problem following chest pains in a draw with Deportivo Alaves on October 30.

The former Manchester City star was informed it would be too much of a risk to continue playing, having made just five appearances in all competitions for new club Barcelona, who he joined in July.

While Higuain understands the circumstances behind his retirement were far from ideal, the Inter Miami man believes Aguero will reflect on his achievements fondly.

"Clearly no player wants to retire like this, but also Kun [Aguero] made an extraordinary career," Higuain, who played with Aguero during their time with Argentina, told Stats Perform.

"He is the top foreign goalscorer in the Premier League. Nobody wants to retire like that, but if he looks back he had nothing more to achieve. 

"Perhaps he lacked a Champions League, but that does not change the quality of player that he is and how he will be remembered. 

"I wish him to be happy and find something he is passionate about. Health comes first. We shared many years together and from the heart I wish him the best."

Indeed, Aguero leaves behind a remarkable legacy. The 33-year-old scored 184 times in the Premier League at a rate of one every 108 minutes, the best frequency of any player to net at least 20 in the competition's history.

Even when you extend it to all competitions throughout City's history, nobody gets within 80 goals of Aguero, with his 260 well clear of Eric Brook (177).

He also boasts the most Premier League goals for a single club in history, with his final strike – a header against Everton in May – taking him past Wayne Rooney's haul of 183 for one club (Manchester United).

Aside from personal accolades, Aguero lifted the English top-flight title on five occasions, tasted success at Copa America in 2021 and raised the EFL Cup an astounding six times. 

Gonzalo Higuain is hopeful his former Argentina team-mate Lionel Messi will one day join him in Major League Soccer.

Higuain is preparing for his second full season in MLS with Inter Miami, having joined from Juventus in September 2020.

Although the striker's goalscoring exploits had regressed slightly towards the end of his time in Europe, Higuain was still regarded as a major coup for both Inter and MLS, where his older brother Federico has plied his trade since 2012.

MLS has previously been considered a competition where fading stars from Europe went to see out the remainder of their careers, with the likes of Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa and Steven Gerrard all doing just that.

But the perception is changing slightly – it is becoming a proving ground for young talent, a viable stepping stone to Europe for South American players and even a place for established European stars who are still at the height of their powers.

Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne highlighted the shift last month by agreeing an end-of-season move to Toronto despite being virtually in his prime. While any MLS switch for Messi, already 34, would look a little more like a final pre-retirement move, Higuain reckons he would enjoy himself.

"It is a very important league and it is growing a lot," Higuain told Stats Perform.

"Important players are coming and I think that in the future it will continue to grow much more.

"I hope [Messi goes to MLS] because it would be a benefit for MLS and for the country, and if he so wishes he would have fun and be happy here."

Inter begin their 2022 MLS campaign at home to Chicago Fire on Saturday, with the David Beckham-backed franchise hoping to enjoy a major improvement from last season.

Phil Neville's side finished 11th in the 14-team Eastern Conference in 2021, a place above Saturday's opponents, while their points total of 41 was better than only six teams across the two MLS divisions.

It would seem Inter may have struggled even more were it not for Higuain, who scored 12 times. His haul of nine non-penalty (np) goals matched up well with his np-xG (expected goals) of 8.7, suggesting the team could really profit from dependable finishing if the service to him improves.

And bettering that return in front of goal is high on Higuain's list of priorities.

"We are fine, looking forward to [the start of the season] and very excited," he said. "It's so close now, let's hope it goes better than last year and we learn from the mistakes made so that this year it doesn't happen again. We are excited to have a good year.

"I want to improve my numbers, which I did my whole career, improve year after year. I hope that this year I can do better to help the team qualify [for the playoffs] and be able to compete for MLS.

"I hope I can improve my numbers, that's my goal and that's what I've prepared this pre-season."

Sergio Aguero intends to go the World Cup in Qatar and hopes it will be as part of Argentina's backroom staff. 

Former striker Aguero experienced chest pain in a match against Deportivo Alaves in October and it was determined he had a career-ending heart issue. 

However, the 33-year-old still wants to be part of Argentina's campaign in Qatar this year and hopes a role can be found for him. 

"I'm going to go to the World Cup. We are going to have a meeting this week. I want to be there," he told Radio 10 in Argentina.

"The idea is for me to join the coaching staff. I spoke with [head coach Lionel] Scaloni and also with [Argentine Football Association president] Claudio Tapia. 

"We have to try to give it a go to see what can be done." 

Aguero joined Barcelona in the hopes of playing alongside close friend Lionel Messi after the pair helped Argentina end their 28-year wait for a senior international trophy at the 2021 Copa America. 

Yet the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner ended up completing an incredible switch to Paris Saint-Germain. 

Messi came in for criticism following his display in the Champions League last-16 first-leg victory over Real Madrid, which was decided by a solitary Kylian Mbappe goal after the 34-year-old had failed to convert a penalty.

"How are the French media going to kill Messi? Leo played well. Were they watching the game backwards? Leo always plays five levels above," said Aguero.

 

The World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina that was suspended amid farcical scenes will be replayed, world governing body FIFA has confirmed.

September's contest in Sao Paolo was called off after Brazilian health officials entered the pitch early on due to an alleged breach of COVID-19 protocols.

The issue centred around visitors Argentina naming three Premier League players in their starting line-up, with travellers from the UK restricted entry to Brazil at the time.

Emiliano Martinez, Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso, as well as Emi Buendia, were accused by the Brazilian government of providing false information on immigration forms.

FIFA launched an investigation at the time and, five months on, a verdict was announced on Monday.

As well as ordering the match to be replayed at a location and date to be set by FIFA, Martinez, Buendia, Romero and Lo Celso have been banned for two games.

The governing body says the suspension is "for not complying with the FIFA Return to Football International Match Protocol".

Brazil have also been fined 550,000 Swiss francs – the equivalent to £439,225 or $593,542 – and Argentina 250,000 Swiss francs.

South American heavyweights Brazil and Argentina have already booked a place at Qatar 2022 with three games, including the rescheduled match, still to play.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola is enthused by the signing of Argentina international forward Julian Alvarez from River Plate, describing the transfer as "a really, really good deal".

The Premier League leaders announced the signing of Alvarez on Monday, when the forward turned 22, in a deal worth a reported £14million ($18.8m).

Alvarez has signed a five-and-a-half-year deal but will stay with River on a loan that will last until at least July and could be extended.

He had been linked with a number of Europe's biggest clubs after scoring 24 goals in 46 games for River in all competitions during an impressive 2021.

That form saw him earn his first senior Argentina cap in June and he has gone on to feature a further five times for his national side.

"I saw him many times, I have the info about him and for the age, for the price, for many reasons and for the future it's a really, really good deal," said Guardiola.

"He is a guy who has a sense of goal, the quality, the movement in behind - a street player.

"The club decided OK, for that age and especially for the fact he stays under Marcelo Gallardo, one of the best managers in the world by far, he's going to develop again and again in this part of the season.

"He is so dynamic. I think when he is playing the goal is there in his mind with the way he finishes and makes the movements over five metres."

Describing what else he likes about the new signing, Guardiola added: "He has the desire, the passion and the strength without the ball.

"He is so young and you see that. He is hungry. At that age it is so nice to have. It can refresh so many things in a team when you have that.

"That is why I love to work with academy players, when they have the talent and skills, and they are good here.

"When that happens, it is so productive for the senior players that we have because they produce something new in terms of rhythm, with no complaints.

"I like to have 15 or 16 top players otherwise you can’t compete. The rest I like to have from the academy, but they have to be good, or it makes no sense.

"In pre-season he will come, he will join us and after that we'll see what happens."

Guardiola sees Alvarez playing in a central role for City when he joins up with them.

"Up front, in the middle," he said after being asked where Alvarez may fit into his line-up. "I see a player more in positions between the pockets and the striker. 

"A guy with this sense of goal has to play close to the goal."

City host Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday.

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni insists there is still plenty to play for in World Cup qualifying with spots in their squad for Qatar 2022 up for grabs "except for one".

The already-qualified Albiceleste got past Colombia 1-0 in Cordoba on Tuesday thanks to Lautaro Martinez's 29th-minute strike to clinch another three points.

Scaloni did not call up Lionel Messi for Argentina's two qualifiers over the past week following his recent COVID-19 case while Rodrigo De Paul and Leandro Paredes were also absent, with Emiliano Buendia making his debut off the bench against Colombia.

"We had the possibility of calling up players but we preferred not to expose footballers who aren’t playing right now," Scaloni told reporters after the game.

"Not only did we miss players but we had to improvise in putting players in positions. We went forward with these call ups who came to contribute and in the end, it went well.

“Here, you can’t relax. Everyone is part of this process but on the pitch, you have to perform. The players that were here today took advantage of their opportunity.

“There’s still a lot left until the World Cup. No one has their spot secured, except for one, as I have always said.”

The victory over Colombia means Scaloni becomes the first Argentine coach to beat all nine South American national teams.

The clean sheet meant Argentina have not conceded in their past five home qualifiers, while the win also extended Argentina's unbeaten run to 29 games.

"I don’t think that’s important, it’s how the team functions and how these players feel wearing the shirt," Scaloni said about their unbeaten streak.

Argentina has extended its unbeaten run to 29 games after Lautaro Martinez's 29th-minute strike earned them a 1-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Colombia in Cordoba.

Martinez netted his 19th international goal from Marcos Acuna's cross as already-qualified Argentina moved to 35 points from 15 qualifiers, with 13 wins from their past 15 games. 

La Albiceleste were missing talisman Lionel Messi but welcomed head coach Lionel Scaloni back to the touchline after COVID-19 and he would have been pleased with his side who were largely in control throughout.

Colombia, whose stuttering qualifying campaign is in strife after seven games without a win nor a goal, struggled to retain possession and mustered few genuine chances on goal against a stubborn Argentine defence, who have kept five clean sheets from their past five home qualifiers.

Messi's Paris Saint-Germain teammate Angel Di Maria, who was dangerous throughout, curled a 16th-minute effort just wide of Colombia goalkeeper Camilo Vargas' goal.

In the 29th minute, Vargas could not prevent Argentina going ahead when Inter forward Martinez trapped Acuna's cross inside the box and lashed home, squirming under the goalkeeper's grasp.

Out of nowhere, Colombia almost levelled on the stroke of half-time, with Luis Diaz setting up Miguel Borja who was denied by Emiliano Martinez. The new Liverpool signing's follow-up effort was cleared off the line by German Pezzella.

Acuna forced a good save from Vargas early in the second half, while the Colombian goalkeeper made a better block with his outstretched right arm to deny Di Maria from range in the 65th minute.

Giovani Lo Celso, who left Tottenham for Villarreal on loan on deadline day, flashed a chance over the bar as Argentina survived a late scare from Johan Mojico's shot which almost caused a Nicolas Gonzalez own goal, although that would not have counted due to offside.

Argentina should have grabbed a second in the 94th minute when Gonzalez broke in behind but opted to square for Paulo Dybala allowing the Colombian defence to clear.

Manchester City have confirmed the signing of Argentina international forward Julian Alvarez from River Plate in a deal worth a reported £14million ($18.8m).

Alvarez has signed a five-and-a-half-year deal with the Premier League champions but will stay with River on a loan that will last until at least July and could be extended.

He had been linked with a number of Europe's biggest clubs after scoring 24 goals in 46 games for River in all competitions during an impressive 2021.

That form saw him earn his first senior Argentina cap in June and he has gone on to feature a further five times for his national side.

City announced Alvarez's arrival on their official website on Monday, the day the attacker turned 22.

"Julian is a player we have monitored for some time," said Txiki Begiristain, City's director of football.

"He is capable of operating in a number of attacking roles, and we firmly believe he's one of the best young attacking players in South America.

"I am so happy we have managed to bring him to Manchester City. I really believe we can provide him with the right conditions to fulfil his potential and become a top player."

Speaking prior to the deal being announced, River president Jorge Brito said he was hopeful a Copa Libertadores run would see Alvarez stay on loan at the club beyond July.

City are also reportedly open to letting the youngster spend the second half of the year with another team, potentially a sister club within the City Football Group.

Alvarez, who previously had a trial with Real Madrid, is considered one of the hottest young talents in South American football after lighting up the Argentine Primera Division.

He scored 20 and assisted a further 12 goals in 36 games in the division last year, with those 32 direct goal involvements at least six more than any other player in 2021.

Cordoba-born Alvarez has won six trophies during his four seasons with River, including the Primera Division last season when leading the division for goals with 18.

Rodrigo De Paul claims Argentina were subjected to some rough off-field treatment from hosts Chile before their World Cup qualifier.

The midfielder said the Albiceleste were prevented from using the bathroom on arrival, had no air conditioning or water and were made to suffer the sound of sirens during their stay in Calama. 

It did not appear to derail the visitors, already safely through to Qatar 2022, as they secured a 2-1 win despite the COVID-enforced absences of Lionel Messi and coach Lionel Scaloni.

"They didn't even let us go to the bathroom when we got off the plane," De Paul told reporters. "They cut off our air conditioners, we had no water and they made sirens sound throughout the stay.

"I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but, as an Argentine, every team that comes to my country, we have to make them feel as comfortable as possible and we have to win on the playing field where it belongs."

Angel Di Maria and Lautaro Martinez netted first-half goals around Ben Brereton-Diaz's looping header as Argentina extended their unbeaten run to 27 games.

The victory improves second-placed Argentina's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying campaign to 32 points from 14 games, while Chile are battling to reach Qatar 2022.

After a solid if unspectacular showing, assistant coach Walter Samuel was pleased to see how well the team coped despite being without talisman Messi.

"Sure there are things to improve, but the team showed character in a difficult environment," he said.

"Messi is the leader of this team, but we were able to do very well without him. We lacked other guys because of Covid that we wanted to be there, but the team made a great effort and I want to thank them for that.

"The character of the boys is moving. All the players start from scratch and want to earn a place in the World Cup. There is healthy competition here."

Already-qualified Argentina flexed their muscle without Lionel Messi with a 2-1 away win over Chile leaving their 2022 World Cup qualification hopes at major risk on Thursday.

Angel Di Maria and Lautaro Martinez netted first-half goals around Ben Brereton-Diaz's looping header as Albiceleste extended their unbeaten run to 27 games.

The victory improves second-placed Argentina's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying campaign to 32 points from 14 games, while Chile are battling to reach Qatar 2022.

La Roja, who suffered their second straight home defeat, have 16 points from 15 games and are seventh in the standings, three points behind Uruguay in the fourth automatic qualification spot after they won 1-0 in Paraguay.

Paris Saint-Germain winger Di Maria silenced the home Calama crowd in the ninth minute when he curled home a trademark left-foot strike from outside the box for his 23rd international goal.

Blackburn Rovers attacker Brereton-Diaz leveled the game up in the 20th minute when he precisely headed over Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez from Marcelino Nunez's diagonal cross.

Argentina restored their lead, just as Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo had gestured to be substituted due to injury, with the veteran stopper unable to hold Rodrigo De Paul's long-range strike allowing Martinez to fire home the rebound in the 34th minute.

The visitors weathered Chile's late pressure, with Brereton-Diaz forcing a good low save from Martinez with an 84th-minute header.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni will miss their upcoming World Cup qualifier against Chile due to a positive COVID-19 test.

The Albiceleste have already qualified for Qatar 2022 with five matches to play in the CONMEBOL section.

Scaloni explained at a news conference on Wednesday he had "completed the isolation" but had not received the negative test he required to enter Chile.

With assistant Pablo Aimar also absent as a close contact, coaches Walter Samuel, Roberto Ayala and Diego Placente are set to lead Argentina on Thursday.

"Both Aimar and I are not going to be able to be part of the delegation," Scaloni said. "Pablo has been in his house for several days due to [being a] close contact.

"I completed the isolation several days ago, but I continue to test positive. To enter Chile you need a negative [test result].

"Walter Samuel, Roberto Ayala and Diego Placente are going to be present as part of the coaching staff."

Scaloni also confirmed players Alexis Mac Allister and Emiliano Buendia will miss the game, with the former testing positive for COVID-19 and the latter a close contact.

After their trip to Chile, Argentina are due to play at home to Colombia on Tuesday.

Emiliano Martinez has signed a contract extension with Aston Villa until 2027.

The Argentina goalkeeper, who tasted Copa America success in 2021, has been an integral figure at Villa Park since his move from Arsenal ahead of the 2020-21 season.

Martinez managed 15 clean sheets in his maiden term under Dean Smith last season, equalling the club's Premier League record for shutouts that was last achieved by Brad Friedel.

Since saving a John Lundstram penalty on his Premier League debut for Villa on September 21, 2020, only two goalkeepers – Ederson (31) and Edouard Mendy (24) – have kept more top-flight clean sheets than the 29-year-old (20).

And after penning a fresh five-and-a-half-year deal, Martinez outlined why he has committed his future to Steven Gerrard's side.

"I won a major tournament with Argentina not long ago and every time I come through the tunnel at Villa Park on a matchday, I can see the crowd, the lights, the fans excited for us to play," he told VillaTV on Friday.

"Just before coming out [on to the pitch], I see the Champions League trophy and the FA Cup trophy and that's where I want to get.

"I want to be in a Champions League final with Villa, I want to be at Wembley playing in an FA Cup final or EFL final.

"That's why I'm committing five and a half years to this club because that's where I want to get."

Martinez endured a frustrating time at Arsenal, where he made just 15 appearances as he was loaned out to numerous clubs, but believes he has now settled at Villa.

"When I signed for Aston Villa, obviously I had massive ambitions about being in Europe and being the best version of myself, and the club have opened a really good door for me," he added.

"They made me a better goalkeeper, with the goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler, Christian [Purslow], Johan [Lange], they're good people, very loyal and ambitious as well, like the owners."

"So winning a major tournament for Argentina, thank you to Aston Villa for developing me as a good goalkeeper; and I think actually I can improve much more here and I want to commit my future here.

"It feels like home."

Villa, who also brought in experienced goalkeeper Robin Olsen on loan from Roma on Tuesday, sit 13th in the Premier League on 23 points as they prepare for their next clash with Everton on Saturday.

Lionel Messi has not been included in Lionel Scaloni's latest Argentina squad as he continues to recover from coronavirus.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward has not played a match in almost a month, with the 1-1 Ligue 1 draw at Lorient on December 22 being his most recent outing.

He contracted COVID-19 while back home in Argentina during the mid-season break, forcing him to return to France later than initially planned.

Messi seemed all set to return to action against Lyon on January 9, but PSG said he needed to continue his recovery and then he also missed the 2-0 win over Brest on Saturday.

While he said last week that "I have almost recovered", Messi did reveal on social media that getting over the illness took "longer than I thought".

Given his situation, Argentina have seemingly deemed it pointless risking Messi or further disrupting his recovery given they have already secured qualification for this year's World Cup.

Argentina travel to Chile on Thursday before hosting Colombia five days later, with both opponents still desperately fighting for the right to play at Qatar 2022.

La Albiceleste's other remaining qualifiers are against Venezuela and surprise-package Ecuador in March.

 

There is nothing quite like an individual football award to create debate and there is sure to be plenty when one of Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski or Mohamed Salah is named this year's men's FIFA Best winner on January 17.

While team trophies will always be the end game for most players, the few who are good enough to be in contention for individual accolades put such importance on being recognised that they have been known to move clubs specifically to improve their chances of collecting silverware in a tuxedo rather than just in a dirty kit. Neymar, anyone?

The Ballon d'Or is broadly seen as football's version of the Oscars, but the annual FIFA Best award is also becoming one of the more sought-after honours and the latest men and women's winners will be crowned on Monday at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich.

The awards will be decided by an international jury comprising national team coaches and captains, a selected journalist from each territory represented by a national side, and fans registered with FIFA's website.

Stats Perform has taken a look at the data of the three nominees for the men's prize to try and decipher who is likeliest to come away with the prize.

The Best... at scoring goals

It is a harsh truth that scoring goals will almost always win over stopping them when it comes to the top awards, so it makes sense that Messi, Lewandowski and Salah are the nominees for this year.

The trio scored 129 goals between them in 145 collective games across 2021, which includes 21 overall in this season's Champions League group stage, over seven per cent of the total amount scored in the competition (297).

However, there is no doubt which of the star trio stood out for finding the net time and time again.

Lewandowski, last year's winner, was frankly ridiculous in front of goal, netting 43 in the Bundesliga in a calendar year, breaking Gerd Muller's record from 1972, and 58 in all competitions in just 47 outings.

Salah had a mixed year at Liverpool, with the Reds' poor form at the start of 2021 almost costing them a place in the Premier League's top four. However, thanks in part to the Egypt forwards' 15 goals in 28 games between the turn of the year and end of the campaign, Liverpool reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and finished third in the league, ahead of European champions Chelsea.

His nomination is mostly down to his form in the second half of the year, though, with Salah scoring 22 goals in 25 games in all competitions. He scored 37 times in all competitions in 2021, at least 15 more than any other Premier League player, and is top of the scoring charts for 2021-22 in England's top flight with 16, well ahead of team-mate Diogo Jota in second place on 10.

For Messi, it is probably the other way round. The legendary Argentine has managed only six goals in 16 appearances since his sensational move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season.

However, his 28 goals in 29 games for Barca between New Year's Day and his emotional departure was Messi at his effervescent best, even if the rest of the team was lagging behind him, and he followed that up with four at the Copa America for Argentina.

Consistency and underlying numbers

While it has been mostly impressive from all three, Lewandowski's consistency puts him above the other two, with a 55.17 big chance conversion percentage across 2021, compared to Messi's 45.95 and Salah's 45.90, and an overall shot conversion rate of 28.02 against Salah's 19.37 and Messi's 15.74.

Unsurprisingly, this also led to a significantly better minutes per goal rate, with Lewandowski averaging a goal roughly every 68 minutes, while Messi bagged one every 116 minutes and Salah every 122 minutes.

While all three scored plenty of penalties that could potentially skew the numbers, Lewandowski again dominated in expected goals (xG) without spot kicks, with a 2021 xG excluding penalties of 43.86, compared with Salah's 29.6 and Messi's 24.37.

Not all scorers have to be selfish

Of course, while goals make the headlines, someone has to create them or nothing will happen. This is where Salah and Messi start to claw it back.

Lewandowski managed seven assists in 2021 in all competitions and created 61 chances for team-mates. Quite respectable for any number nine.

However, despite a perhaps unfair reputation for being "selfish", Salah recorded 11 assists and created 88 chances, while Messi had 13 assists to his name and created exactly 100 opportunities.

In terms of big chances (which Opta define as an opportunity from which a player would be expected to score), it is a bit closer, with Lewandowski crafting 16, Salah 18 and Messi 24, though with the Pole usually playing higher up the pitch it makes sense that the opportunities he creates would come in a dangerous area.

Show us your medals

While it is not entirely without merit, it does seem a bit counter-intuitive to base how much credit an individual player deserves on what his team has achieved. There are plenty of world-class players who did not always play in teams capable of winning much silverware, just like there have been numerous average players who were simply members of squads that won a lot, whether they had much to do with it or not.

It usually comes into consideration when the big awards are handed out though and is likely the ultimate reason that Messi pipped Lewandowski to last year's Ballon d'Or.

Messi helped Barcelona win the Copa del Rey last season and then inspired Argentina to glory at the Copa America, with his nine direct goal involvements helping them to win the trophy for the first time since 1993.

Lewandowski, on the other hand, had less success at Euro 2020, with Poland crashing out at the group stage of the re-arranged tournament. He still managed to score three goals in as many games for his country, but was unable to force them into the knockout stages.

He did win the Bundesliga title again with Bayern, but after claiming a remarkable treble the year before, it may rather harshly look like a bit of a regression.

Unfortunately for Salah, this is probably where his chance to finish above the other two falls down, as arguably proven by his astonishingly low seventh place in the Ballon d'Or voting.

The 29-year-old did not have an opportunity for national team success in 2021, and he is currently aiming to help Egypt recover from an opening game defeat to Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, but he also did not win any trophies at club level.

It is possibly a bit too early for Salah, but his form has been electric this season and if he can continue it through the rest of the campaign, ideally for Liverpool collecting a trophy or two along the way, he will certainly be in the conversation for next year's honours.

The question will be the same as it was for the Ballon d'Or; will those with voting power be more impressed by Lewandowski's goalscoring exploits, or by Messi's final six months at Barca followed by a successful Copa America, or could Salah's explosive form in the second half of the year see him sneak it?

Whatever the outcome, you would be hard-pressed to argue that the trio are not currently the three best footballers on the planet, though if you take a look on social media when the winner is announced, you'll find plenty of people willing to try.

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