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Mbappe, Kane fights for Ballon d’Or

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Race for the Golden Ball hotting up – so which of the game’s biggest stars are true contenders, and who are merely pretenders?

After a season headlined by him finally getting his hands on the World Cup, Lionel Messi took home his eighth Ballon d’Or after picking up the 2023 prize in Paris back in October. The footballing world has moved on, though, and now the heat is on as we gradually move towards knowing the identity of the 2024 winner.

As we enter the final stretch, it promises to be an intense race. Along with the usual ups and downs of the European domestic season, this is a campaign that will see the majority of the globe’s best players take part in international tournaments, including the European Championship and Copa America this summer.

So after a year that was defined by the battle between Messi’s tournament success for Argentina and Erling Haaland’s season-long superiority at Manchester City, how much of a bearing on the 2024 Ballon d’Or race will those international competitions have? Meanwhile, could we see the first win from someone who plays their club football outside of Europe, as more and more of the game’s biggest names head to up-and-coming leagues in other parts of the world?

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One thing for certain is that GOAL will be here every step of the way to track the contenders for the biggest individual prize the game has to offer. Ready to join us for the ride? Then step right in for the latest update of our Ballon d’Or 2024 Power Rankings…

Surely not number nine?! Messi became the first man playing outside Europe to win the Ballon d’Or in 2023, but he earned the prize for his performances while employed by Paris Saint-Germain. Could he now win a Golden Ball while playing exclusively on the other side of the Atlantic?

The odds are admittedly stacked against him. With the new MLS season having only begun in February, Messi will not be able to win any meaningful domestic trophies during the voting period for the 2024 award. His hopes of continental success are also over, as Miami crashed out of the CONCACAF Champions Cup thanks to an embarrassing quarter-final exit at the hands of Monterrey.

However, if Messi can lead Miami to somewhere near the top of the Eastern Conference midway through the campaign before then guiding Argentina to a third-successive tournament triumph at the 2024 Copa America, then all bets might be off.

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This has not been Kimmich’s finest season, with the Bayern stalwart having fallen out with manager Thomas Tuchel while putting in a series of underwhelming showings that have led to the Bavarians being deposed as Bundesliga champions. He could yet leave the Allianz Arena this summer, too, with contract talks having broken down.

However, his winning goal against Arsenal in the Champions League quarter-finals suggested that Kimmich can still produce on the grandest stage, and having been deployed back at right-back in recent weeks for club and country, he could yet be crucial to both Bayern and Germany claiming continental honours in the coming months.

If any moment summed up Lautaro Martinez’s big-match struggles, it was his woeful penalty in Inter’s shootout loss to Atletico Madrid that ended their hopes of reaching a second-successive Champions League final in the last 16.

The striker has been on a tear for the runaway leaders in Serie A this season, though, and could yet be part of a victorious Argentina squad at the Copa America, but his failure to prove himself in the biggest occasions is likely to mean he finishes down the Ballon d’Or pecking order once again.

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Bayer Leverkusen have had many shining lights in their historic title-winning season, but Frimpong’s effervescent personality, coupled with his remarkable attacking output from wing-back, is likely to have caught some Ballon d’Or voters’ attention.

If he can help Xabi Alonso’s side complete a remarkable treble by adding the Europa League and DFB-Pokal to their Bundesliga trophy, then the ex-Manchester City trainee could force himself onto the shortlist, regardless of what role he then plays for the Netherlands at Euro 2024.

Some eyebrows were raised when Arsenal forked out £105 million ($137m) to sign Rice from West Ham over the summer, but any doubts over the deal were quickly erased thanks to the midfielder’s superb campaign thus far. Not only has the England international been key in shielding Mikel Arteta’s defence, he has also scored some stunning goals, while in 2024 he has added a new string to his bow by becoming a set-piece expert for a team that has become the Premier League’s dead-ball specialists.

If Rice can help lead the Gunners to silverware this season – which admittedly looks a tougher task than it did a couple of weeks ago thanks to their Champions League exit and Premier League slip-up – before playing an important role for a successful England side at the Euros, then Ballon d’Or candidacy is a realistic proposition.

Bernardo may have had plenty of memorable moments over the course of the campaign, including the winning goal in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final victory over Chelsea, but the lasting memory from what be his final season at the Etihad Stadium now threatens to be his embarrassing penalty miss in the shootout as City’s Champions League defence came to an end at the hands of Real Madrid.

He can still redeem himself by helping secure a domestic double for Pep Guardiola’s side, while a strong showing at Euro 2024 for a well-fancied Portugal could yet vault him back into Ballon d’Or contention.

De Bruyne even challenging for the Ballon d’Or after he missed the entire first half of the season due to injury might seem fanciful, but if anyone can force themselves into the reckoning, then it’s the Man City midfielder.

The 32-year-old has looked in great form since returning in January, and is once more a key player for a Pep Guardiola’s team, even if his goal against Real Madrid wasn’t enough to keep City’s dreams of a double-treble alive. He will also be the main figurehead for a Belgium team who, while unfancied to go all the way, have got a decent draw at the European Championship.

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Salah finished just outside the top 10 in the 2023 Ballon d’Or voting despite Liverpool’s struggles last season, and so it felt like the ‘Egyptian King’ had a real chance of forcing himself into contention as the Reds pursued both the Premier League title and Europa League to go with the Carabao Cup they have already won this season.

However, Salah’s poor form since returning from injury has coincided with Jurgen Klopp’s side seemingly echoing their manager in running out of energy, and it now looks likely that they will have to be content with just a solitary trophy from the German’s final season in charge.

Salah’s injury agony, which began at the Africa Cup of Nations, has not only diminished him at club level, but also meant he missed the chance to enjoy the same international success that some of his rivals might have this summer. His hopes of winning a first Golden Ball are dwindling.

It went under the radar somewhat, but there was an argument to say that from the beginning of the 2022 World Cup through to the end of 2023, there wasn’t a more consistent high-level performer anywhere in Europe than Griezmann.

His form during the first half of the current season had Atletico dreaming of domestic and European glory, but the Rojiblancos have since slipped out of La Liga’s title race and are now just about hanging onto a top-four finish. They are also out of the Champions League, after throwing away the lead in their quarter-final with Borussia Dortmund twice to exit the competition just as it looked to be opening up for them..

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Griezmann could still lead France to glory at Euro 2024 this summer, but his chances of claiming the Ballon d’Or in 2024 have become much longer.

At the start of the season, Rudiger wasn’t even in Real Madrid’s first-choice XI, but injuries to Eder Milito and David Alaba have since seen him emerge as the senior centre-back at Santiago Bernabeu. It’s a responsibility he’s relishing, too, with his performances in silencing Erling Haaland during Los Blancos’ Champions League win over Manchester City typical of what the ex-Chelsea man has been delivering in 2023-24.

Rudiger could yet end the season with a domestic and European double to his name, while he is also likely to be important for Germany this summer as Julian Nagelsmann’s improving side eye victory on home soil.

Anyone who believed Arsenal might fall away after last season’s title-race disappointment looked to have been proven wrong, with Saka leading the way for Mikel Arteta’s side as they aim to break their long Premier League trophy drought. The England winger started 2024 in electric fashion as the Gunners showed their best form of the campaign so far.

However, the recent loss to Aston Villa threatens to derail Arsenal’s title pursuit, and they also crashed out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage in limp fashion to Bayern Munich, with Saka kept quiet in Bavaria

Despite that, Saka could yet lead Arsenal to a domestic title, and then all he might need to be in with a real chance of winning the Ballon d’Or is a strong Euros with the Three Lions. That said, his chances of lifting the Golden Ball have been hit hard in recent weeks.

Rodrygo’s form had fallen off somewhat after a strong finish to 2023, while there is no doubt that others at Santiago Bernabeu continue to dominate the headlines far more than the Brazilian winger. However, after scoring in both legs of Madrid’s Champions League quarter-final win over Manchester City, the ex-Santos starlet has vaulted himself right back into the minds of Ballon d’Or voters.

If he can keep finding the net during the final weeks of the campaign, especially in the Champions League, before helping to lead his country to glory at the Copa America, then he could find himself among the true Ballon d’Or contenders comes the end of the summer.

It has been over a year since Rodri last tasted defeat inside 90 minutes for Man City, and little illustrated his importance to the team more than the fact that they lost each of the first three Premier League games that he missed in 2023-24. However, he was on the losing side as City lost out to Real Madrid on penalties in the Champions League quarter-finals, meaning he won’t be able to repeat his final heroics of last season.

Despite that, he remains the best defensive midfielder in the world right now, and the fact that the Spain international has also developed a habit of popping up with crucial goals means he is catching the eyes of even more fans – and Ballon d’Or voters. A domestic double and Euros title remains on the table for him to win, too.

Haaland could barely have done more to win the 2023 Ballon d’Or and yet still came up just short, so could he get over the hump this time around? The answer looks increasingly likely to be ‘no’, as despite his fine goal-scoring record, he has endured some forgettable performances in 2024. He could still end the campaign with a domestic double, but going out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals is likely to prove costly.

That is because of the biggest obstacle that was already in Haaland’s way, which is that he will again miss the big summer tournament after Norway failed to qualify for Euro 2024. There was already a chance that if other contenders shone in Germany, then Haaland’s potential heroics might have been forgotten come voting time. Now, it might merely push him further down the final rankings.

Bayer Leverkusen remain unbeaten in all competitions through 45 matches this season, and Xabi Alonso’s side have already celebrated the club’s first-ever Bundesliga title as they ended Bayern Munich’s stranglehold on German football. They are also into the DFB-Pokal final and are now the favourites for the Europa League, and so ending the season with multiple trophies isn’t out of the question.

Should that happen, Ballon d’Or voters will be keen to reward Alonso’s most important players, and few – if any – are having better campaigns than Wirtz, whose hat-trick against Werder Bremen put the seal on their title-winning campaign.

The playmaker’s form since recovering from a serious knee injury has been superb, and is likely to earn him a £100-million-plus move over the next 12 months or so, as well as a starting role for hosts Germany at Euro 2024. The only thing holding him back right now is name recognition, but that could easily change in the next three months.

Injury meant that Vinicius did not got off to the fast start many might have expected when Karim Benzema left Real Madrid, but having finally shaken off his fitness issues, there are signs of the winger getting back to his best level.

He netted a hat-trick to help beat Barcelona in the final of the Spanish Super Cup, while he has been in fine goal-scoring form in La Liga as Carlo Ancelotti’s side close in on the title at home. They are also now the favourites to win the Champions League, and Vinicius knows what is required to get over the line at the top of the European game.

When you factor in that he’ll also likely be Brazil’s main man at the Copa America following Neymar’s season-ending knee injury, Vinicius is set up for a memorable 2024.

With Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland having both missed chunks of the season through injury, Foden has stepped up in spectacular fashion for City, and is enjoying the best campaign of his already illustrious career to date.

He has scored two Premier League hat-tricks since the turn of the year to help edge Pep Guardiola’s side towards a fourth-successive domestic title, though his stunning strike at Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid proved to be for nothing as City crashed out on penalties after the second leg.

That said, not only is he in contention for multiple trophies with City, Foden’s form has also given him a great chance of starting for much-fancied England at Euro 2024, too. He’s fallen back in the Ballon d’Or race, but he’s not out of it yet.

Kane’s move to Bayern was meant to put him in a spot where he could finally end the wait for a first trophy of his career, but the Bavarians looked to be in real danger of finishing the season without any silverware after surrendering the Bundesliga title to Bayer Leverkusen. However, they showed resolve to beat Arsenal in the Champions League, and they have enough talent to go all the way in Europe.

Kane continues to score at a record-breaking rate and is averaging more than a goal a game in the league for the defending champions, so if he were do the Champinos League-Euro 2024 double – or even come close to it – then a first Ballon d’Or could fill one of the gaps on his mantepiece.

The saga is almost over, as we now know that this will be Mbappe’s final Ballon d’Or campaign as a PSG player, with his protracted move to Real Madrid expected to be confirmed in the coming weeks. Mbappe’s goals already have the reigning Ligue 1 champions in pole position to defend their crown, and they are now dreaming of Champions League success, too, after the forward’s two goals rounded off a comeback win over Barcelona in the quarter-finals.

With France also the favourites to win Euro 2024 in many people’s eyes, the 25-year-old could yet enjoy an epic end to the 2023-24 season, with a first Golden Ball potentially within touching distance.

The best footballer in the world during the first half of the 2023-24 season, Bellingham took to his new surroundings at Real Madrid like no signing since Cristiano Ronaldo. Not only did he score frequently, but he also netted hugely important goals, too.

The hype around him had been tempered in recent months, in part due to him missing games through injury and suspension, but he reignited his Golden Ball bid with a tireless performance to help knock Manchester City out of the Champions League before netting his second stoppage-time winner in El Clasico of the season.

With Bellingham getting back to top form, England will be confident of finally getting over their major tournament hump at the European Championship, too. Right now, it remains his world, and we’re just living in it.

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