Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery and Cristiano Ronaldo. It wasn't going to be anyone else on the three-man short list for the 2013 Ballon d'Or, which was announced by FIFA on Monday.
The La Liga duo were a shoo-in for two of the spots, as they have been for the past six years (Messi has won four straight, and Ronaldo won in 2008), while Ribery has joined the creme de la creme thanks to the superb performances through the year that helped Bayern Munich complete their historic treble.
Ever since the original short list was drawn up, the talented trio were the hot favourites to make the trip to Switzerland in January for the annual ceremony. The votes are in and have been counted. All that's left is for cases to be made for and against. Here's the case for CR7:
1. Goals, goals, goals
Stats are one thing but they are not everything -- not unless you're breaking records left, right and centre. Messi bagged 91 goals in 2012 and broke Gerd Muller's record of 85 goals in a calendar year. It was the main talking point as the Argentine securing his fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or.
With three games left that Ronaldo can play in this calendar year (he's banned for the second leg of the Copa del Rey clash with Xativa), Madrid's talisman will not match that, but he won't be far off.
Before this year, his record in a calendar year was 63 for club and country. Ronaldo has 67 goals in 56 games. He surpassed Hugo Sanchez in the Madrid scoring charts and equaled Portugal legend Pauleta at the top of his country's scoring charts with 47 in 109 games. It's just a matter of time before he beats that.
Perhaps most impressive, Madrid's No. 7 has scored 14 in the Champions League this calendar year, beating the record of 13 set last year by Messi. Eight goals have come in the competition this season, equaling the group-stage record, and one more in Madrid's final match against FC Copenhagen Tuesday would see him break another record.
Despite sitting out recent matches because of injury, he is included on the Madrid squad for the trip to Denmark, despite Los Blancos already securing their passage. You'd assume he's keen to add that extra goal.
His 2013 goal tally blasts Messi and Ribery out of the water. Injuries didn't help his Argentine nemesis, and Ribery makes up for his lower goal tally in the assist stakes, but Ronaldo is way ahead of his rivals in finding the back of the net. He's the top scorer in all of Europe's biggest leagues and shows no signs at all of slowing down -- quite the opposite, in fact.
2. No trophies? No problem
Whenever Ribery's name gets mentioned for the Ballon d'Or, it's often followed by the fact that he was part of an all-conquering Bayern side. Domestic double, Champions League glory and the Super Cup just to top it off. You mention it, the Frenchman has won it this year.
But this award is an individual one, not a team one. That's not to say Ribery's place in the top three is unjust, but it can be successfully argued that he has been part of the best side in Europe, and perhaps the world, in this calendar year.
While Ribery has made the top three, a case could be made for teammates such as Thomas Muller and Philipp Lahm, too, while Manuel Neuer, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger also made the initial 23-man short list. That's a sure sign of strength within the Bayern ranks. Andres Iniesta and Xavi joined Messi from the Barca ranks.
In contrast, only Mesut Ozil, now at Arsenal, joined Ronaldo as a Blanco on the short list -- a sure sign that Madrid as a team didn't enjoy a great year, especially when it mattered toward the end of last season.
That was in spite of Ronaldo's efforts, not because of. His dismissal in a fiery Copa del Rey final derby was a blemish, but Ronaldo no longer shies away in the big matches, as many have previously suggested. He scored in both legs as Madrid progressed against his old club Manchester United last season and scored in their exit against Borussia Dortmund. The Portuguese scored a last-minute winner for Madrid at Levante -- a goal that could prove crucial come the end of the season -- scored both in the 2-1 win over Juventus this season, and scored two in Madrid's 3-1 cup win at Barcelona.
That's not even bringing into consideration his success for Portugal. On a national side that is not exactly inspiring, Ronaldo pretty much single-handedly helped his country to the World Cup in Brazil. Matched against Zlatan Ibrahimovic, another player on FIFA's original short list, Ronaldo scored the only goal in the first leg of their playoff against Sweden before bagging a hat trick, his second of the year internationally, in the second leg.
Madrid didn't have a vintage year last season under the last problematic months of Jose Mourinho's stay at the Bernabeu. But that didn't hamper Ronaldo's season, and it shouldn't hamper his chances of winning the award for the world's best player. His countryman Luis Figo won the accolade in 2001 without winning a trophy and Ronaldo will be looking to follow suit.
3. Thanks, Sepp
If the voting was close going into the final week, Ronaldo's chances of ending his four-year drought for the Ballon d'Or was only improved by FIFA extending the deadline for another week, nicely timed with his stunning hat trick that sent Portugal to Brazil.
World football's governing body put it down to a low turnout of votes, but Ronaldo won't be complaining. With Messi out injured and Ribery featuring but not making the headlines in France's progression against Ukraine, that decision could only have gone in favour of the man who grabbed every sporting headline thanks to his performance in Scandinavia, something only aided by his head-to-head with Ibrahimovic.
Some minds may have already been made up, but some may not. Swedish votes aside, the international managers, captains and journalists could not help but be mesmerized by a memorable performance, coming at just the right time for voting.
4. Mr. Sunshine
Whenever the comparisons between Messi and Ronaldo are discussed, the footballing attributes lead the way, but the character of both players come a close second. Messi is often perceived as the good guy, while Ronaldo takes the bad guy tag -- for justifiable reasons best left for another time.
Right or wrong, these characteristics play on the mind of some voters. Who wants to vote for somebody they don't like? Whether it be play-acting, on-the-pitch moaning, or off-the-pitch ego, Ronaldo has not usually come out well. In fact, he's pretty much been Messi's alter ego. Travel to grounds around Spain, and the biggest insult fans can make is chant "Messi, Messi, Messi" at Ronaldo. They know the score, and so does he.
Last season, world football didn't react well to Ronado declaring he was "unhappy." No reason was given, but rumours of wanting a new contract made the rounds and, with the current economic climate in Spain, it didn't sit well, even with some Madridistas. The fact no official reason was given just made things worse.
The image of him being "mardy" and "selfish" was cemented. It can't have helped his Ballon d'Or cause, even if Messi was running away with it in 2012 thanks to his record goal haul.
Things have been different this year. Even in the difficult months under Mourinho, Ronaldo got on with his job, scored goals, and caused little controversy of note. Fast-forward to the start of this season and he's playing with a smile on his face, seemingly enjoying his football more than ever. He declared his state of happiness at Madrid and hinted he would stay for the rest of his career. This came on the back of a bumper new contract, of course, but this is a happy Ronaldo with whom fans are more enamored.
Believe it or not, he was not universally "loved" at the Bernabeu in his opening years in the Spanish capital, but all of that has changed, too.
Some 45,000 Ronaldo masks were worn in support of his Ballon d'Or chase during the recent Champions League match against Galatasaray, and a huge banner was unveiled in the north stand, despite him not playing. This is Cristiano Ronaldo at the height of his powers and probably at the height of his popularity, and the two go hand in hand. His more likable persona will only help to bring about votes.
Blatter's now-famous quote about Ronaldo having "more expenses for the hairdressers" when comparing him to Messi at a talk at Oxford in October has only helped endear people to Ronaldo.
5. The 'Most Improved' player
Everyone likes to see someone get better and not rest on their laurels. Ronaldo has done exactly that.
It started with the first month of the year, as if Ronaldo set a New Year's resolution and was desperate to stick to it. Seven goals in his first three games back after the winter break, with a brace in Madrid's 4-3 win over Real Sociedad followed by two more in a 5-0 demolition of Valencia at the Mestalla and a hat trick in Madrid's 4-0 win over Getafe. It was like a post-Christmas gym membership -- Ronaldo meant business.
The stats back that up, too, with Ronaldo already bettering his personal calendar year scoring record. He has scored 25 goals in 18 matches this season, his best ever start to a season, and hit double figures for Portugal, too -- the first time he's achieved that feat. He hadn't scored an international hat trick until this year, and now he's bagged two.
It's not just the goal stakes where he's improved, either. Often portrayed as a selfish player, he has 16 assists, which means he's contributed to an amazing 82 goals in total. Those assists show he has been more of a team player this season. Few will complain at the sight of Ronaldo charging selfishly toward goal thanks to the knowledge that he's probably going to stick it away, but the assists add another string to his bow.
Ribery has shown these improvements, too. Said to have an ego similar to that of Ronaldo, the Frenchman has been molded into more of a team player, not only on the assist front but in tracking back and working hard. In contrast, Messi has continued with his usual game -- not that anyone's complaining. But the Argentine is often the finisher of the product, and not the creator, and doesn't track back too often on instructions of the Barca coaching staff, who want to keep him as fresh as possible nearer goal.
If any year is going to be Ronaldo's, it's going to be this one.