Will Manchester United star be railroaded for award?

Football FanCast columnist Rob Swan looks at the runners and riders for the Ballon d'Or and wonders if Cristiano Ronaldo will be the most deserving recipient of the award this year.

After being awarded the FIFPro
World Footballer of the Year award this week, Cristiano Ronaldo looks
odds on to take the coveted Ballon d'Or award in December. However,
several influential figures in the game have given their backing to
a host of other players who've also enjoyed impressive years for their
clubs and countries. With this in mind, is Ronaldo the most deserving
candidate, or should it be awarded to someone else?

Winning the Premier League, European Cup and chipping in with 42 goals
will result in the Manchester United man making the top three at the
very least. However, the European Championships this summer was supposed
to provide the ideal platform for the winger to lead Portugal to their
first major international trophy. It didn't quite work out that way,
and the general consensus assessed he'd wasted the perfect opportunity
to dispel any doubts that he was the best player in the world.

Injury at the start of the 2008/09 season has meant that it's been a
slow start to the new campaign for Ronaldo – another factor which could
work against the 23-year-old in his bid for the Ballon d'Or. But with
one month to go to get back to his imperious best, which other players
are likely to stand any chance of challenging him?

Winning the European Championships are likely to stand one or two players
in good stead of placing in the Ballon d'Or top three. The man who scored
the winning goal in the final against Germany, as well as settling into
his new club with consummate ease, Fernando Torres became the first
striker since Robbie Fowler in 1996 to score 20 goals in a season for
Liverpool. And so far this season, the Merseyside club currently lie
at the top of the Premier League with the Spaniard scoring five goals
in six games.

However, most of the calls for the striker to win the award have come
from those inside the club including Albert Riera and his manager, Rafael
Benitez. Whilst a supposed rivalry between Iker Casillas over the award
has been played down by the Real Madrid goalkeeper, who would become
the first keeper since Lev Yashin in 1963 to win the European Footballer
of the Year award.

Elsewhere, the man who was named best player at Euro 2008, Xavi, was
instrumental in Spain's success, but whether or not he had a bigger
influence than his teammates' Marcos Senna and Andres Iniesta could
be argued. Also, since the beginning of the new season, Senna has been
at the heart of Villarreal's early surge up the table, and likewise
Iniesta at Barcelona. But despite Iniesta's superb form for club and
country, he was omitted from the shortlist for the award, a decision
that baffled managers, players and supporters alike.

But regardless of Iniesta's bizarre exclusion, Torres looks to have
the biggest claim for the Ballon d'Or, from the Spanish contingent at
least.

The one player who should also receive a placing was last year's third
place player, Lionel Messi. A simply tremendous display in both legs
of the semi-final of the Champions League wasn't enough to haul Barcelona
past Manchester United, but was enough to prompt questions about who
was most deserving out of the Argentine and Ronaldo for the title of
best player in the world.

Messi then followed this with a series of typically brilliant performances
at the end of Barcelona's La Liga campaign, before heading to Beijing
to compete for Olympic Gold in August. After a fierce club vs. country
row in which Barcelona eventually agreed to release the 21-year-old
for international duty, Messi spearheaded Argentina's quest for gold,
in emphatic fashion.

It seems that Messi may have the second largest claim behind Ronaldo
and the support for the Argentine has been championed by the likes of
Cesc Fabregas, Kaká, Ronaldinho and Marcello Lippi. Incidentally, Messi
himself has given his backing to outsider Sergio Aguero after his astronomic
rise to prominence over the past 12 months, with the Guardian's Spanish
Football Correspondent Sid Lowe hailing the Atletico man as the best
player in Spain last season.

Last year's winner Kaká is unlikely to have any involvement in the
top three this time round following a less than successful year with
AC Milan, and was the only player from the Italian giants to make the
shortlist.

There's no doubt that Ronaldo is the overwhelming favourite to win the
award in just over a month's time, but those who think the award has
already been wrapped up should cast their minds back to 2006. With Barcelona
winning both the La Liga title and the Champions League, Ronaldinho
had hit the peak of his career and was simply unplayable. That was until
the World Cup finals in Germany, where it had been expected that the
Brazilian would lead his nation to their sixth World Cup title, and
in the process placing himself inside the top echelon of footballers
that ever lived with Diego Maradona and Pele.

Naturally, it didn't go quite to plan and several sub-standard performances
in the finals meant Ronaldinho failed to place at all in the 2006 Ballon
d'Or. Undeserved perhaps, but this showed that international achievements
perhaps hold more worth in the quest for the Ballon d'Or. Instead Fabio
Cannavaro took the award after captaining Italy to glory in the World
Cup, with Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon as runner-up.

So, although the Manchester United winger may well be favourite, don't
be entirely surprised to see a certain Spaniard or Argentine taking
the spoils this winter.