KIEV: In an age when individual awards are given ever greater importance, Saturday’s Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool — and Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah — could determine the winner of the next Ballon d’Or.
After all, Ronaldo has won the prestigious prize on the back of helping Madrid to each of their recent European Cup triumphs, in 2014, 2016 and again last year.
It is reductionist in the extreme to bring Saturday’s final down to just two players, given the strength in depth available — especially in attack — to Madrid and Liverpool.
But this is the era of the individual, at a time when Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have dominated the Ballon d’Or for a decade.
The status of each is such that the annual prize for the world’s best player generates ever fiercer debate.
Ronaldo has won the last two, but can he really win it again, having recently turned 33?
In a World Cup year, what happens in Russia will play a big part too — it is impossible to imagine Messi not winning a sixth Ballon d’Or should he lead Argentina to the title.
But Ronaldo can certainly make his case in Kiev, while this is also a golden opportunity for Salah before he leads Egypt into the World Cup.
– Ronaldo: An insatiable hunger –
Ronaldo’s decline in the first half of this season was as concerning as his reawakening in 2018 has been breathtaking.
The Portuguese star has scored 41 goals in all competitions this season, but an incredible 28 of those have come since late January.
Despite only scoring four times before La Liga’s winter break, he ended up with 26 goals in that competition, behind only Messi.
But it is the Champions League that really brings out the best in him.
Ronaldo scored in Manchester United’s 2008 final win over Chelsea, and has played a decisive role in each of the three finals won by Real since 2014.
This season, despite his poor domestic form, he had scored in every Champions League game prior to the semi-final win over Bayern Munich.
Karim Benzema’s brace in the second leg against the Germans was crucial, but neither he nor Gareth Bale have been close to Ronaldo’s standard this season.
The ‘BBC’ may no longer be so fearsome as a trio, but after that difficult spell, Ronaldo’s figures in 2018 mean he is making his case to be crowned the world’s best again.
“Cristiano knows that a player can have difficult moments. That’s why he’s the best,” warned Real coach Zinedine Zidane this week.
“Some players suffer under pressure, others just the opposite, and he is one of them. The more you criticise him, be careful.”
– Salah already breaking records –
This has already been a record-breaking season for the Egyptian, whose 32-goal tally was a new best in the Premier League for a 38-game campaign.
Overall, he has scored a remarkable 44 in all competitions since his arrival at Anfield from Roma, including 11 in Liverpool’s memorable run to the Champions League final.
He has been ably supported by Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, with that threesome netting 90 goals between them in all competitions.
Nevertheless, Liverpool’s hopes of winning a sixth European Cup depend to a large degree on Salah.
Whether that would be enough to land the Ballon d’Or as well is something that seems to split his team-mates.
“But what if Messi and Ronaldo win the World Cup? Do they deserve it? I don’t know what do you have to look at to win the Ballon D’Or,” said Georginio Wijnaldum this week.
“If it’s winning a prize, if it’s scoring the more goals. We will see.”
Defender Dejan Lovren was a little more optimistic.
“He can be in the top three best players in the world. He has the quality, the world-class experience already,” he said.
“He is so calm, a man down to earth and he deserves every credit for every goal he scored for now and definitely we will help him achieve this dream.”