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29 Nov, 2021 22:03

Relentless Robert Lewandowski is hard done by Lionel Messi’s questionable Ballon d’Or win

Relentless Robert Lewandowski is hard done by Lionel Messi’s questionable Ballon d’Or win

Lionel Messi has had a superb year and almost dragged Barcelona to an unlikely league triumph. Yet the numbers behind his Ballon d'Or win set out why the result is unfair on some of his rivals – not least Robert Lewandowski.

For the Ballon d'Or winner, crediting your team-mates in your post-win interviews is mandatory. Professionalism demands effusive platitudes – and this year, they are as inevitable as the debate around Lionel Messi's seventh win.

In Messi's case, it could be argued that his victory owes more to the failures of some of his team-mates. Barcelona's demise has been sufficiently dramatic to make it hard to countenance that doomed former boss Ronald Koeman's deteriorating side were in the Liga title race until weeks before the end of last season. That's what having the most fabled attacking magician in the world does for a flawed team.

That Messi's 30 goals were seven more than two players who were on fire for much of the season – Real Madrid's Benzema and Villarreal's Gerard Moreno – is another reminder of what a freakish talent he is.

Benzema, too, dragged a side that was poor by Madrid's standards through a season when champions Atletico profited on the two kingpins' considerable shortcomings. You could argue he has done that for at least two years. With 43 goals and 14 assists, he has one fewer goal involvement during the calendar year that the award is curiously counted by than Messi. Had Messi's goals trailed off a little earlier than they have since his move to Paris Saint-Germain in August, Benzema's claim to the title would be even more compelling.

Time has also done for Lewandowski. Not in his advancing footballing years – at 33, his relentless dedication is being rewarded with ever-greater feats for Bayern – but in the certainty that he would have won the award had it not been canceled in 2020.

With a jury of journalists voting, a slight suspicion lingers that the romanticism of voting for a player who glides majestically around the turf like Messi, as opposed to the pistons-and-power of Lewandowski or Benzema, played on the panel.

Even without breaking Gerd Muller's remarkable Bundesliga record, Lewandowski's 64 goals in a year may never be repeated. Novelty isn't enough of a reason on its own to ultimately decide where your tick goes in the ballot in a tight contest, but if ever there was a year to conclusively argue that a player had usurped Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as super-human, this was it.

Could anyone have done more than Benzema and Lewandowski? Winning the Copa America, justifiably, has clearly swayed the king-makers more than Benzema's Nations League glory with France and the Bundesliga title which the Poland captain fired Bayern to. Messi was the best player and top scorer at the tournament, and there was a redemptive air to him finally winning a trophy with his country.

There have been enough photos of him sloping around the pitch in muted disconsolation to make the Copa win seem a fairytale which France and Bayern's consistent successes are not. Even in winning the Copa del Rey with Barca, there was a sense of sympathy for Messi, of winning in spite of the club he adores being at its lowest ebb. Lewandowski and Benzema's team-mates would not have asked them for photos with the cup in the immediate aftermath, as some of the Barcelona squad did with the spirit of starstruck celebrity spotters.

There are few signs that Benzema and Lewandowski will let up anytime soon. Kylian Mbappe and Mohamed Salah will be back in the running should they emulate the outstanding year they have had. Mbappe, at 22, is not yet as fashionable as Messi but has scored five more goals than him already for PSG this season, and will surely take the crown at some point once the older guard have stepped away.

Messi's potency appears to be on the wane at PSG. Then again, accusations of dwindling form seem absurdly shaky when you watch him curl in a strike of the preposterous class that he did at home to Premier League champions Manchester City, or haunt a defense on his way to setting up all of his side's goals in a game.

He did that on Sunday after Paris went a goal down, providing three sublime assists, looking like no other player in the world could do what he does. Messi is undoubtedly a worthy winner of the Ballon d'Or again. The identity of the rightful recipient is less clear.

By Ben Miller

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.