Ballon d'Or battle adds heat to Clasico frying pan

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

No explanation is needed when discussing just what is at stake when Barcelona and Real Madrid lock horns.

The first Clásico of the season takes place at the Camp Nou on Saturday night, and pride, politics, bragging rights and three crucial points will all be on the line. Two new coaches, Gerardo Martino and Carlo Ancelotti, will have their first experience in the dugouts, and two new stars in Neymar and Gareth Bale will hope to shine on one of the biggest domestic stages of all.

But the way this first meeting between Spain's old foes falls adds a little bit extra to proceedings. When you think Barcelona against Madrid, you think Lionel Messi against Cristiano Ronaldo. That contest could just be that bit hotter Saturday with the match coming just days before FIFA announces its initial 23-man short list for the Ballon d'Or on Tuesday.

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The pair will be on that list, and they'll be among the front-runners to win it, as has been the norm in recent seasons. Messi has undoubtedly been the star of the show, winning it the past four years and rubbing a bit of salt into the wounds of Ronaldo by sporting a rather sparkly number more fit for "Strictly Come Dancing" than a football awards show.

Madrid's talisman says finishing second is not the end of the world, but he wants to win it. Boy, does he want to win it.

That's why his performance against the Catalans, on a personal level, could be more important than ever. To run the show in Barca's backyard and help Madrid to victory in front of the watching world would put him firmly in the minds of the voters for the world's best player in 2013.

FIFA's Football Committee, along with experts from France Football magazine, will draw up the initial 23-man short list. Players including Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Robert Lewandowski, Franck Ribéry, Andres Iniesta, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Arjen Robben are expected to be on it.

That list will be cut to three when votes are open for those international captains and coaches, as well as journalists from around the world, to select their top three. That list will be revealed in December, and a gala ceremony will be held in Zurich in the New Year to name the winner.

Right or wrong, many things are considered when votes are cast -- the current form of a player, a personal goal tally, the amount of silverware won, often favouritism. To look at just where the votes are cast after the ceremony is somewhat akin to the Eurovision Song Contest. The way the voting is done is an argument in itself, but that is for another day.

Ronaldo, or should that be Madrid, has fallen down on the silverware front -- runners-up to Barcelona in La Liga, a semifinal exit from the Champions League at the hands of Borussia Dortmund and a Copa del Rey final defeat against neighbours Atletico in their own backyard. It was not a vintage year at the Bernabeu, and Jose Mourinho paid the price. Ronaldo could well do the same with the Ballon d'Or.

Nor was it vintage for Messi either, especially by his and Barca's standards. The Catalans may have won La Liga, but like Madrid, they fell short elsewhere.

If silverware is going to be the overriding factor in this year's voting, the Germans should be in with a great chance, especially the Bavarians. Ribery won UEFA's Best Player in Europe award and will no doubt be in the running for the world prize given Bayern's dominance on all fronts last season. Throw Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller and Philipp Lahm in there too.

Madrid assistant Zinedine Zidane certainly hasn't done himself any favours with Ronaldo. "They both deserve it," said the Frenchman, "but I would give it to Franck because he was fundamental in the three trophies that Bayern won last season. The problem is there is a kid who has scored 55 goals in a season. Anyway, I do not decide."

Few could debate Messi's fourth straight success last season, although I'm sure Ronaldo could find a reason. While Madrid wrestled the Spanish title from Barca in 2011-12, Messi's individual performance was exceptional, breaking Gerd Muller's 40-year-old calendar-year scoring record with an unbelievable 91 goals in 69 games in 2012. Those records are smashed once in a lifetime; Messi was unstoppable.

Ronaldo did not hang around and mope. The first three La Liga games brought seven goals. Two came in Madrid's 4-3 victory over Real Sociedad and the same again as Los Blancos tore Valencia apart 5-0 at the Mestalla. He was a man on a mission. It got better a week later with a hat trick in Madrid's 4-0 home win over Getafe. He won the individual battle with Messi in the Copa del Rey as a brace of goals in a 3-1 victory at the Camp Nou sent Madrid through. Many questioned the former Manchester United man's bottle in those big games. Not anymore.

Fast-forward to this season, and although Madrid is still a team in progression, Ronaldo has shone and indeed in some games carried his team through. He has netted 18 goals in 14 matches in all competitions and has scored an incredible seven in three Champions League games -- all but one of Madrid's UCL goals. His double in Wednesday night's 2-1 victory over Juventus at the Bernabeu was crucial. All this has happened with Ancelotti tinkering to find his best team and tinkering with Ronaldo's position too.

These comparisons are not to say the pair are the only ones likely to win this year's biggest individual prize -- far from it. Many put Ribery at the top and a whole host of names have been mentioned. Bayern, in particular, are extremely hard to ignore. Former Madrid man Fernando Hierro has called on the current Spanish crop of players to be rewarded too, perhaps hinting at Xavi or Iniesta. “I would give the Ballon d’Or to a Spanish player,” he said. “I wish it had been awarded to a Spaniard during these past five years, when the national team has been world champions, European champions and our clubs have been champions in Europe. Spanish football has deserved it."

Some of those who will vote for this year's gong may already have made up their mind where their slip will be cast; some may still need some convincing. Whatever their voting philosophy, current form could have an impact and Ronaldo is at the top of his game. Another top-drawer performance from the Portuguese on Saturday at the Camp Nou, a stadium that is fast becoming one of his favourites, would not go amiss.

The first Clasico of the season is set to be a cracker, but the personal battle between Messi and Ronaldo, again, could be just as enthralling. Bring it on.

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