Liverpool forward Sadio Mane is Karim Benzema's biggest challenger for this year's Ballon d'Or, according to Arsenal and France legend Thierry Henry.

Benzema is enjoying the best season of his career in front of goal and has played a crucial role in Madrid's run to the Champions League final, where Liverpool await on May 28.

The 34-year-old has scored 43 times and provided a further 14 assists in all competitions, with no other player across Europe's top five leagues directly involved in more goals (57).

Robert Lewandowski and Kylian Mbappe are next on that list with 54 combined goals and assists each, while Mane lags some way behind on 23 for Liverpool – albeit having missed part of the season during the Africa Cup of Nations, which he won with Senegal.

Lewandowski, Mbappe and Anfield team-mate Mohamed Salah have been tipped to rival Benzema for football's top individual award, but Henry believes Mane is better placed. 

"To make the final even bigger, the two favourites for the Ballon d'Or are Mane and Benzema," Henry told CBS Sports. "That will add an extra little spice into it."

Mane played a direct part in five goals for Senegal at AFCON, aiding his cause to be crowned the world's best player.

However, if the former Southampton forward is to have any chance of pipping Benzema to the accolade, Henry says he must win a clean sweep of trophies with Liverpool.

The Reds have already lifted the EFL Cup and are into the FA Cup and Champions League finals, but they trail Manchester City by a point with four Premier League games left.

"I still believe that Benzema is ahead, but if Mane wins [the Champions League] with Liverpool and they do make the quadruple, that is a pretty strong case," Henry said.

"It would be great for Africa, but I'm still going for Benzema."

Benzema finished fourth in the voting for last year's Ballon d'Or, which was won by Lionel Messi for a record-extending seventh time.

Indeed, only one player other than Messi and five-time winner Cristiano Ronaldo has won the award since 2008, with Madrid and Croatia midfielder Luka Modric triumphing in 2018.

Vinicius Junior says "there are no words" to describe Karim Benzema's form as he backed his Real Madrid team-mate to win this year's Ballon d'Or.

Benzema, on his 600th appearance for Madrid, scored twice in Tuesday's 4-3 loss to Manchester City in their Champions League semi-final first leg at the Etihad Stadium.

The France international's first was a difficult twisting finish to drag Madrid back in the game at 2-0 down and the second a calm Panenka penalty late on to leave the tie well poised.

He now has 41 goals in as many games for Los Blancos this season, a tally bettered only by Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (48 in 43) across Europe's top five leagues.

The 34-year-old is the fifth Madrid player to score over 40 goals in a single season, after Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugo Sanchez.

Benzema also leads the scoring charts in the Champions League this term with 14, one more than Lewandowski, whose Bayern side were eliminated by Villarreal at the quarter-final stage.

Having finished behind Lionel Messi, Lewandowski and Jorginho in last year's Ballon d'Or, Vinicius insists Benzema should land the 2022 award.

"There are no words that can describe how Benzema is playing," Vinicius said. "He deserves the Ballon d'Or.

"I hope my brother Benzema ends up winning LaLiga, the Champions League and Ballon d'Or."

Benzema scored a hat-trick in the second leg of the last-16 win over Paris Saint-Germain and another treble in the first leg of the quarter-final victory against Chelsea.

His nine goals in the knockout stages has been bettered only once in a single Champions League campaign – Ronaldo scoring 10 in the 2016-17 edition.

Vinicius is not alone in backing Benzema to win the Ballon d'Or, with former team-mate Mesut Ozil tweeting on Tuesday: "Give my boy Benzi the Ballon D'Or."

Ex-Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand agreed with that assessment, quoting the tweet and adding the word "Facts".

That post by Ferdinand was liked by Benzema, whose prospects of being crowned the world's best player could be bolstered by helping France to World Cup glory in December.

Rather than bask in his glorious form, however, the prolific striker accepts his side have a lot of work to do if they are to advance any further in this season's competition.

"A defeat is never good, but we are excited about this Champions League and the important thing is we never give up," he told Movistar+. 

"Now we have to go to the Bernabeu and we need the fans like never before to do something magical, which is to win.

"We entered the game without confidence, and that's what happens with an opponent like Manchester City. In this game a little bit of everything was missing."

Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has put his failure to land a Ballon d'Or award down to not fitting the "Mr Perfect" mould of perennial winners Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Despite registering over 500 club goals for the likes of Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, Ibrahimovic has never finished in the top three of the voting for the prestigious individual prize.

The Sweden international's highest finish came in 2013 when claiming fourth place behind Franck Ribery, Messi and Ronaldo, the latter two having taken the award 12 times between them (Messi 7, Ronaldo 5).

Indeed, only Luka Modric in 2018 – after winning the Champions League with Real Madrid and playing a starring role in Croatia's run to the World Cup final – has broken that duopoly over the past 14 years.

But Ibrahimovic, who has not been afraid to air his thoughts across a remarkable 23-year career, does not believe the Ballon d'Or is awarded on footballing ability alone and therefore has no regrets about missing out.

"These are political awards. They want 'Mr Perfect'," he told Bild. "If you speak and say what you think, you can't get them.

"It's easy to give them to Mr Nice Guy. It doesn't change anything for me, it doesn't make me better or worse."

Ibrahimovic is continuing to prove his worth at the age of 40 with Milan and is reportedly in talks over signing a contract beyond the end of this season, when his existing deal is due to expire.

The Malmo academy product has won trophies in five different countries, including Italy, France, Spain and England, but he has never plied his trade in the German top flight.

While a move to Bayern Munich may now be out of the equation, Ibrahimovic revealed he has a soft spot for the reigning Bundesliga champions.

"I've always been curious about the Bundesliga," he said. "There are teams like Bayern Munich, an incredible club.

"Every time I played against them I could always see their facilities, the stadium, their organisation. The history of the club is impressive."

The Ballon d'Or voting process will undergo a number of reforms ahead of the next ceremony, it was announced on Friday.

France Football editor-in-chief Pascal Ferre confirmed in L'Equipe there will be a number of changes, with the most notable being an alignment with the European club season, as opposed to the traditional calendar year awards.

While there was little debate regarding Alexia Putellas' win in the Ballon d'Or Femenin, Lionel Messi controversially won for a record seventh time in 2021, ahead of Robert Lewandowski and Mohamed Salah.

Messi's performances with Argentina in their Copa America triumph propelled him to that win, despite – in the eyes of many voters – Lewandowski and Salah having stronger years on the whole.

As a result of the changes, though, performances from the 2022 World Cup in November will be taken into account for the 2023 award. Meanwhile, the 2023 Women's World Cup aligns with the 2024 award.

Secondly, given the Ballon d'Or voting jury has drastically expanded from the initial 16 in 1956 to 2021's 170, the jury for the men's trophy will be limited to representatives from countries in the top 100 of FIFA rankings, and 50 for the women’s award.

On top of that change to the body of jurors, Ballon d'Or ambassador Didier Drogba is among those who will now help to compile a shortlist of nominees.

While voting criteria in the Ballon d'Or has always been deeply subjective, France Football will seek to create a clearer rationale for individual cases.

A change in criteria will now not only consider individual performance but also that of the individual's teams, the "class" of the player and their fair play record. The "career of the player" will no longer be taken into account.

Thibaut Courtois tipped Karim Benzema to challenge for the Ballon d'Or following his star performance for Real Madrid against Paris Saint-Germain.

Benzema struck a hat-trick to secure a 3-1 second-leg win over PSG at the Santiago Bernabeu and send Madrid into the Champions League quarter-finals 3-2 on aggregate.

The Ligue 1 leaders held a 1-0 lead from the first leg of the last-16 tie and, after Kylian Mbappe fired past Courtois in the first half, it looked as though the tie could be over.

That was until Benzema led a stirring fightback in the final half-hour, scoring his first after forcing an error from goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and then steering home a deflected strike.

The France striker then flicked in Vinicius Junior's pass to send the home fans into jubilations and mark his 500th start for the club in supreme style by surpassing the great Alfredo Di Stefano in Madrid's all-time scoring charts with 309 in all competitions.

Courtois now thinks Benzema, who became the oldest player to score a hat-trick in Champions League history at the age of 34 years and 80 days, could be in line for the game's top individual honour in 2022.

"I think he's one of the greatest players in the world, the best number nine, maybe with Lewandowski right now," Courtois told RMC Sport.

"I think he showed why he should, maybe, win the Ballon d'Or this year. He's a great player, a real captain. He led the team to victory with his goals and his class."

Mbappe twice saw a goal ruled out for offside prior to Madrid's fightback as PSG again suffered a Champions League second-leg collapse in Spain, five years on from their famous 6-1 loss to Luis Enrique's Barcelona.

"In the end, it was a complicated match with Kylian and Neymar on the counter-attack," said Courtois.

"That was how the first goal came about. Just before then, they had a few chances without much danger.

"We had a nice shot from Karim, I think Donnarumma made a good save from a header. Then Karim pressed the goalkeeper well, he made a mistake, we got back to 1-1. From there, I think the whole stadium was behind us.

"We went for the win after going 2-1 up, the third goal was key, and you felt that for the PSG players, it was harder after this goal."

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.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic insisted he does not need to win the Ballon d'Or to prove the Milan star is the best.

Ibrahimovic has won league titles with Ajax, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, though the Swedish forward has never claimed the Ballon d'Or.

The evergreen 40-year-old continues to produce for Milan in his second spell at San Siro, where the Rossoneri are dreaming of their first Scudetto since Ibrahimovic helped deliver silverware in 2010-11.

Ibrahimovic's outspoken agent Mino Raiola said he cannot take the Ballon d'Or seriously due to the fact the Sweden international has never received the prized individual honour.

But during a presentation for his new book "Adrenaline" in Milan on Sunday, Ibrahimovic was quoted as saying: "The Ballon d'Or is a nice thing. But I don't need it to prove that I am the best."

 

 

The event took place after Ibrahimovic scored his 300th league goal across Europe's top five leagues in Saturday's last-gasp 1-1 Serie A draw at Udinese.

Ibrahimovic came to Milan's rescue in spectacular fashion, his stoppage-time equaliser salvaging a point for the Rossoneri in what was his 450th appearance in the top five leagues – the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have reached that mark previously in the 21st century.

"It's the mentality. I train in the same way that I play," Ibrahimovic said of his longevity.

"Every day is a final. It was difficult when I arrived at Milan [for his second spell], but we've created a group. We've created an atmosphere that is over the top.

"Then there was the pandemic, but the staff here is great. I've worked with other teams in my career, but this is really excellent. The group goes towards the same target. Unfortunately, we didn't win yesterday. I should have scored two goals.

"Now, I wake up with pain every day, but I have adrenaline and I go on. This year, the adrenaline is for the Scudetto. Yesterday I scored a goal, but we didn't win and it hurts."

Robert Lewandowski has continued with business as usual despite disappointment at the 2021 Ballon d'Or awards, according to Bayern Munich head coach Julian Nagelsmann.

Lewandowski had to settle for second place and an inaugural Striker of the Year accolade at the France Football award ceremony, with Lionel Messi collecting a record-extending seventh crown.

The Bayern striker may have felt hard done by, given he has scored 14 more times than any other player in Europe's top five leagues in 2021, with 55 goals across all competitions to his name so far.

The Poland international also missed out last year due to the coronavirus-enforced cancellation of the 2020 Ballon d'Or, which he was favourite for after breaking Gerd Muller's long-standing Bundesliga record following 41 goals in 29 league games last term.

But Nagelsmann insisted that Lewandowski – who again leads Europe's top five leagues with 27 goals this term across all competitions, seven more than second-placed Mohamed Salah – has not let the Ballon d'Or snub impact his performances.

"I haven't noticed a big change in terms of hunger for goals, regardless of the Ballon d'Or decision or new records," Nagelsmann, whose side face Mainz on Saturday, told reporters at his pre-match news conference.

"I think he was in an incredibly good mood lately with very good body language. He also does his job defensively very neatly. I think he just wants to be successful with FC Bayern."

 

Bayern, inspired by the likes of Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry, sit four points clear of Borussia Dortmund at the top of the Bundesliga as the reigning champions prepare to host Mainz.

Nagelsmann is also eyeing a landmark of his own, with a potential 100th Bundesliga win awaiting him in just his 199th game as a top-flight boss.

Should he do so, he will become the fastest to a century in the German top flight but the former RB Leipzig head coach claimed he did not even know he was approaching a milestone as he praised his team's recent efforts.

"Thanks for the memory, I didn't even know that," he added. "That's a nice number, I'm happy.

"The players are in a good mood, I think. The atmosphere is also good on the pitch and in the dressing room. 

"I think we have mastered the difficult autumn quite well so far, even with the many injuries and failures. We want to win the rest of the games and keep the gap to Dortmund in the league. We will drive ahead with full speed."

Nagelsmann, however, will be without Joshua Kimmich, who will miss the remainder of 2021 with a lung problem as he continues to recover from coronavirus.

But the Bayern head coach defended his player, who is yet to be vaccinated for COVID-19, after suggestions Kimmich was causing problems.

"Basically, it's always good if you ask him that yourself," he continued. "Of course, as a thoroughbred athlete, he always wants to be on the pitch, especially because he's always been fit. 

"You have to allow opinions here in Germany. He has made his decision, you have to accept it."

Robert Lewandowski has clarified his comments and expressed delight at Lionel Messi's praise after beating the Poland striker to the 2021 Ballon d'Or.

Messi claimed a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or last week, with Lewandowski having to settle for second and the inaugural Striker of the Year award.

The Bayern Munich forward may feel somewhat hard done by, given he scored 53 times in 42 games for the Bundesliga champions between the start of 2021 and the winner being announced by France Football.

That was the most of any player in Europe's top-five leagues across all competitions, with 2021 Copa America winner Messi down in joint-fifth with 32 goals.

Gerd Muller's long-standing record for the most goals (40) scored in a single Bundesliga season was also broken by Lewandowski, who netted 41 in 29 league games last term to make him favourite for the award that was cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After accepting the award again, Messi made special mention of Lewandowski as he suggested the forward deserved a Ballon d'Or of his own for his 2020 performances.

Lewandowski appeared ungrateful for the praise, apparently saying to Polish channel Kanal Sportowy that he hoped Messi's words were "a sincere and courteous statement from a great player and not just empty words," though he has since looked to clarify exactly what he meant.

"My statement, which I made in an interview with a Polish TV broadcaster, is currently being misinterpreted," Lewandowski told Kicker. "I never wanted to say that Lionel Messi's words were not serious or sincere.

"On the contrary. I was very touched and delighted by Lionel Messi's speech at the event in Paris, in which he expressed that, in his opinion, I deserved the Ballon d'Or 2020. I just wanted to express that I would of course be very happy if Messi's words were heard.

"I respect and appreciate Lionel Messi beyond measure and once again congratulate him on winning the Ballon d'Or 2021."

Robert Lewandowski has questioned whether winner Lionel Messi was sincere with his praise towards him after beating the Bayern Munich striker to the 2021 Ballon d'Or award.

Messi claimed the coveted accolade for a record-extending seventh time last week, with Lewandowski finishing second as he settled for the inaugural Striker of the Year award.

Lewandowski was somewhat unfortunate to miss out to Messi, having scored 53 times in 42 games for Bayern between the start of 2021 and the award being handed out.

That was the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues across all competitions, with Messi – who won the Copa America with Argentina – joint-fifth on the list with 32 goals.

Poland international Lewandowski averaged a goal every 67 minutes over the same period. Among those with 10 goals or more, club-mate Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting was the next-most regular scorer, netting every 84 minutes.

Lewandowski would also have been favourite to win the award last year had it not been scrapped due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In his acceptance speech when collecting the award, Messi said Lewandowski deserved a Ballon d'Or of his own for his exploits in 2020.

"Last year, everyone was in agreement to say that [Lewandowski was] the big winner," Messi said. "Hopefully [France Football] give you the Ballon d'Or 2020."

However, Lewandowski appeared unmoved by those comments from Messi and admitted to feeling upset about once again missing out on football's top individual honour.

"I felt sadness," he told Polish channel Kanal Sportowy. "I can't deny it. I can't say I was happy – on the contrary, I have a feeling of sadness. 

"To be so close, to compete with Messi, of course I respect how he plays and what he has achieved. The mere fact that I was able to compete with him shows me the level that I was able to reach.

"I'm not that enthusiastic about getting the 2020 award. I would like [Messi's statement] to be a sincere and courteous statement from a great player and not just empty words."

Lionel Messi insists outdoing supposed rival Cristiano Ronaldo has never been a source of extra motivation after the Argentinian won a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or crown.

Paris Saint-Germain forward Messi finished ahead of serious challenger Robert Lewandowski on Monday to cement his status as the world's best player.

The Argentina international has now won the award two times more than Manchester United striker Ronaldo, who finished outside of the top three for the first time since 2010.

Between them, the pair have won the Ballon d'Or – widely considered to be the most prestigious individual accolade in football – in 12 of the last 13 years it has been awarded.

They also battled it out for team honours during their time in LaLiga with Barcelona and Real Madrid, but Messi says he has only ever been focused on himself rather than others.

"I always wanted to surpass myself and not look at what others were doing," he told France Football. "With Cristiano, we kept our battle going within the same league for years. 

"It has been wonderful and has helped us both to grow in our careers, but without looking at each other. I just wanted to surpass myself, to be the best I could be, and not better than any other."

Messi had previously been criticised for failing to match the international achievements of Diego Maradona, but he finally guided Argentina to a first major trophy in 28 years back in July, as La Celeste won the Copa America.

The 34-year-old admits comparisons with Maradona "have sometimes bothered me in the past", and he also does not feel comfortable with being a role model himself.

"I don't like giving advice," he said. "I fought for my dreams. At first it was to be a professional player, then I tried to surpass myself and achieve new goals every year.

"In the midst of it all, there is also an element of luck. It also depends on God, and I believe he chose to have all of this happen to me."

The former Barcelona man added: "I've been Messi for 34 years, so I'm starting to get used to it. I'm happy with everything that's happened.

"But sometimes, I have to admit, I'd quite like to go unnoticed, to enjoy being with my family without people recognising me.

"I'm not complaining, though, on the contrary. It's always nice to receive a compliment, a smile or someone asking for a photo with me. I'm used to it and for me it has become normal."

Thomas Muller said it was "definitely a disappointment". Jurgen Klopp was left confused. Lothar Matthaus "doesn't understand the world any more". Even Lionel Messi used his victory speech to suggest France Football issue a retrospective 2020 award.

Whatever your views on the Ballon d'Or this year, chances are you saw Messi beating Robert Lewandowski to the prize and thought it was at least worthy of discussion. Robbed of the chance to claim it last year when France Football cancelled it – hence Messi's magnanimous suggestion to the organisers – Lewandowski suited up for this year's gala having scored 53 goals in all competitions in 2021, at least 15 more than anyone else, with a new single-season Bundesliga scoring record in his pocket and yet another league title with Bayern Munich. And all after winning the treble the season before. And it was only good enough for second place.

Now isn't the time for Lewandowski to dwell on disappointment, though. There's the small matter of the Klassiker on Saturday: Bayern are only a point above Borussia Dortmund at the top of the table, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, a real title race is on the cards again. Plus, Dortmund have fit-again Erling Haaland back among the goals – and ready to give chase to Lewandowski's goalscoring benchmark.

After the Ballon d'Or disappointment, and with Dortmund and Haaland breathing down his neck, this would be a good time for Lewandowski to start laying a claim for the 2022 prize...

 

Meisters at work

There are some great rivalries in the Bundesliga, but this game is truly a German institution.

Dortmund and Bayern have met each other 129 times – it's the most frequently played match in German professional football history. Bayern have lost more often to Dortmund than any other side (32 times); likewise, nobody has beaten BVB as often as Bayern (63 times).

Recent history has been firmly on Bayern's side (even ignoring their nine consecutive league titles since Dortmund's last one in 2012). The champions have won each of the past six Klassikers, and all of the previous three on Dortmund's home turf. BVB have only lost four in a row at home to the same team on two occasions: against Hamburg from 1982-84, and against Juventus from 1993-2015.

 

Perhaps things will be different this time. After all, Dortmund have won seven home games in a row at the start of this season, something they have never achieved before. Beating Bayern would see them equal their club record of 12 consecutive home league victories, and few would argue it's impossible: with 30 points from 13 games, this is their third-best start to a season in the era of three points for a win.

With just a point separating them in the table, former Bayern defender Patrik Andersson certainly sees it being a close encounter. "First of all, when you see that Bayern lost against Augsburg, now it's only one point... I think it will be a decider, for the moment," he told Stats Perform.

"And also, for Bayern, a really important game before the big clash against Barcelona. And now Dortmund, having no chance in the Champions League, it is also a really important game for them. So, yeah, always a big clash."

Consider, too, Julian Nagelsmann's record against Dortmund. The Bayern boss has only managed one win in 11 Bundesliga meetings with Dortmund, his points-per-game average of 0.64 the lowest he has against any opposition. And while Bayern are enjoying their best Bundesliga season for six years (31 points in 13 games), scoring 42 times in that run – the second-best return in their history – they have managed precisely zero clean sheets in nine away league games. The last time that happened was in a 12-game run in 2010-11, during which Louis van Gaal was sacked as coach.

And that's before we come to Haaland, and the man in whose wake he treads – a pair who scored five of the six goals in the previous league meeting of these sides.

 

Tor-mentors in chief

Since the start of last season, Lewandowski has scored 73 goals in 60 games in all competitions, more than anyone else in Europe's top five leagues. His nearest rival, with 55 goals in 50 games, is Haaland.

Lewandowski's tally comes from a figure of 61.43 expected goals, meaning he is outperforming his expected output by 11.57, the biggest such differential in those top European leagues. Behind him come Karim Benzema on 9.33, Son Heung-min on 9.26, and Haaland on 9.11.

Among players to score at least 20 times since the start of 2020-21, Lewandowski boasts the second-best shot conversion rate (28.7 per cent). Top of that list is Haaland, the only man with a figure of more than 30 per cent (30.4).

By all meaningful measures, these two are the best goalscoring number nines in Europe, and have been for some time.

 

Haaland, of course, missed around a month of this season through injury and only returned against Wolfsburg last week. Naturally, he scored, becoming the youngest player in Bundesliga history to reach 50 goals and the only man to hit that milestone in as few as 50 games. Take away his league goals in 2021-22, and Dortmund would have six points fewer.

Lewandowski has already plundered 25 in just 20 games this term, 14 of which have come in the league. Without those, Bayern would be five points worse off, and we'd be talking about Bayer Leverkusen's chances of a first Bundesliga title.

Dortmund need no reminders about their old striker's prowess, of course. Lewandowski has scored 24 times against his former club, making them his favourite opposition alongside Wolfsburg. Should he score this weekend at Signal Iduna Park, he would match Klaus Fischer's record of 117 away goals scored in Bundesliga history – and in 83 fewer appearances.

 

For Lewandowski, this match represents a quick opportunity to remind everyone not only why he should have won this year's Ballon d'Or, but why he should be favourite for next year's, too. Firing Bayern to victory would also bolster their chances of a remarkable 10th league title in a row, and put in his place the young pretender to his throne as football's greatest marksman.

And make no mistake: Haaland is coming for that title, and more besides.

Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah said he has "no comment" to coming seventh in the Ballon d'Or voting as he laughed off finishing low down the list.

The Egypt international was considered among the favourites to come out on top at Monday's ceremony in Paris on the back of another impressive year for Liverpool.

However, Salah finished below Cristiano Ronaldo, N'Golo Kante, Karim Benzema, Jorginho, Robert Lewandowski and record-extending seven-time winner Lionel Messi.

After scoring twice in Liverpool's 4-1 win against Everton on Wednesday, Salah was asked by Amazon Prime how he felt about finishing seventh in the standings.

Salah shook his head while laughing and said: "I have no comment".

Prolific forward Salah doubled Liverpool's lead after Jordan Henderson had opened the scoring at Goodison Park, before Demarai Gray pulled one back for Everton.

Salah's second and a thumping Diogo Jota strike sealed a third win in a row for the Reds, who remain within one point of Manchester City and two behind leaders Chelsea.

It is the first time Liverpool have scored four goals away to Everton in the league since a 5-0 victory in November 1982 and Salah was pleased with the performance.

"It's a great result. To come here, play good football and win the game is something positive," he said.

"The scoreline is great. We also scored five against Manchester [United] – hopefully we can continue like that."

Salah, who is the first Liverpool player to score twice away at Everton in the league since Fernando Torres in 2008, added: "Hopefully there are many more goals to come.

"My first target is to win something at the club – the Premier League, the Champions League... hopefully both."

Salah has now scored 13 Premier League goals this season, nine of which have come away from home – more than double the number of any other player.

He is also the first Liverpool player to register a goal or assist in seven consecutive away appearances in the competition.

The 34 goals Salah has scored in all competitions this calendar year is a tally bettered only by Benzema (35), Kylian Mbappe (37), Erling Haaland (38) and Lewandowski (53) among players from Europe's top five leagues.

Thomas Muller believes Robert Lewandowski should have trumped Lionel Messi after the Argentina international claimed his seventh Ballon d'Or title.

Messi collected his record-extending seventh accolade after more success with Barcelona and Argentina, who ended a 28-year wait for a major trophy with their Copa America win, despite struggling at new club Paris-Saint Germain.

The 34-year-old has scored just once for PSG in seven Ligue 1 outings this term, while Lewandowski has netted 25 times in 20 appearances across all competitions this season for Bayern.

The Poland forward also registered 41 goals in just 29 league games for Die Roten last campaign to break Gerd Muller's 49-year record in a single Bundesliga season, but only finished runner-up at Monday's ceremony.

While coronavirus forced a cancellation of the 2020 Ballon d'Or, which Lewandowski appeared favourite for, Muller feels his team-mate was deserving of the 2021 award as well.

 

"From a Bavarian, Polish and also from a German point of view, the presentation of the Ballon d'Or yesterday evening was definitely a disappointment," Muller wrote in a post on his official LinkedIn profile.

"For some even a little more. Although I've been in the business for a bit longer and was therefore not really surprised at the outcome (it was similar with Franck Ribery in 2013), the whole thing formed or reinforced a thought in me: We have great players in the Bundesliga and we have to not hide us. However, further international successes are necessary for global recognition.

"This is also a huge motivation for me to put everything into the balance in order to bring the Champions League back to Munich and to show the football world what is going on. And above all, what German football has to offer.

"We have the next opportunity to do so next Wednesday in the Champions League game against Barcelona. Let's tackle it! 

"PS: With Lionel Messi, he is probably the best individualist football has ever produced. So congratulations to Lionel on winning the Ballon d'Or, even if I think that Robert Lewandowski would have deserved it more this time."

Jurgen Klopp has questioned what more Robert Lewandowski could have done to win the Ballon d'Or after the Bayern Munich striker missed out on the award.

Lionel Messi scooped the accolade for a seventh time on Monday, but many felt this would be Lewandowski's time to take the glory.

Klopp benefited from the brilliance of Lewandowski when both men were at Borussia Dortmund, with the Poland international scoring 103 goals before switching to Bayern.

At club level, Lewandowski has scored 53 goals already in 2021, with six assists taking him to 59 goal involvements, the most in Europe's top five leagues.

Messi sits fifth on that list (32 goals, 12 assists) but helped Argentina to win the Copa America, thereby winning one of the few trophies that had eluded him.

That likely tipped the vote his way, with Messi's form since leaving Barcelona to join Paris Saint-Germain in August having so far been sketchy by his mercurial standards.

Asked initially whether he was surprised there were six players who ranked higher than Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, Klopp said: "I was surprised to be honest, but it's not in my hands. If you think he should be higher up, then you'll have to convince your colleagues."

Then Klopp turned his focus to Lewandowski, a player he once described as the best he has ever coached. Lewandowski was second to Messi for the coveted Ballon d'Or, which is voted for by journalists from across the world.

The 33-year-old scored 41 Bundesliga goals last season, breaking a record for the most in the division that was previously held by Gerd Muller.

"I think that you always can give it to Lionel Messi for the career he has and the footballer he is, all these kinds of things, but if you don't give it to Robert Lewandowski this time then it's quite tricky to get it at all," said the Liverpool boss.

"And yes, Mo definitely should have been high up."

 

Lewandowski would also have been a frontrunner in 2020, only for organisers France Football to cancel the awards due to the impact of the COVID-19 enforced break in the football year.

He managed 57 goals involvements (45 goals, 12 assists) in 2020, which was 10 more than Cristiano Ronaldo (41 goals, 6 assists), who had the second-most in the elite leagues, and 12 ahead of Messi (26 goals, 19 assists).

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