Ten years on from the start of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s illustrious reign over the Ballon d’Or, the two greatest players of their generation – and arguably all time – finally face a challenger with a genuine chance of breaking up El Clasico’s dominance over the beautiful game’s pinnacle individual accolade in Liverpool’s new superstar Mohamed Salah.
Only the Argentine has scored more league goals than the Reds’ roaring forward across Europe’s leading five top flights this season, only 17 players have bettered his ten league assists and only two players – team-mate Roberto Firmino and Ronaldo – have been involved in more Champions League goals, 14 from just eleven starts.
Those returns are made all the more impressive by the fact Salah doesn’t ply his trade with one of Europe’s super-massive clubs; Liverpool finished fourth in the Premier League and have surpassed the Group Stages of the Champions League for just the first time since 2008/09 this season. They’re a re-emerging force, but not one with the resources of Real Madrid or Barcelona.
And yet, there will no doubt be a bias because Salah is so new to the ultimate bracket of attacking players and because he doesn’t belong to the El Clasico rivalry. Alongside the Ballon d’Or, there’s been an undoubted bias behind selections for the UEFA Team of the Season over the last decade – 63% of the slots have gone to either Barcelona or Real Madrid players. But even with that aside, the obvious counter-argument to Salah winning this year’s award is quite simply that we still don’t really know how talented a player he is. Is this merely a blaze of brilliant form, or will the Egyptian international sustain this level for several years to come?
Trophies though, will inevitably change opinions and transform Salah’s season into something more historic and tangible. He now has a date with destiny and Ronaldo, the Champions League final in Kiev, and although Egypt’s hopes of winning the World Cup are ambitious to say the least, becoming the talisman to take the African national beyond their means in Russia will only aid Salah’s Ballon d’Or credentials. If he wins the Champions League and the Golden Ball, can the Ballon d’Or voters really pick Messi or Ronaldo over him?
And for Salah to win this season’s award would bring a fitting end to Ronaldo and Messi’s reign, because it came from poignantly similar beginnings. In 2007/08, Ronalo was crowned for the first time having fired Manchester United to the Champions League title while matching the previous record of 31 goals in a 38-game Premier League season, during a time when the English top flight was at the peak of its powers. With a ferociously dominant top six that have mostly reached the latter stages of European competitions this season, it feels as if the Premier League is once again on the verge of a summit, and Salah could well mimic Ronaldo by bringing the continent’s ultimate prize back to English shores.
In fact, if we judge Salah on the criteria that sealed Ronaldo his first Ballon d’Or a decade ago, it’s actually the Liverpool star who has enjoyed the better season on practically every statistical front. Salah’s scored more goals and made more assists than Ronaldo did in 2007/8, including more league goals and more Champions League goals, and rather than matching the Premier League goal record has surpassed it by one, setting a new target for future competitors to reach. Perhaps most impressively of all though, whereas Ronaldo was United’s designated penalty taker, Salah scored just one this season before having responsibility hooked from him by Jurgen Klopp. The rest of his goals have been in open play.
The obvious difference, however, is how Ronaldo turned his incredible form into silverware as the biggest talent in a United side that completed a domestic and European double. Even if Liverpool win the Champions League, he’ll still be short of the Portuguese in terms of trophies. Likewise and equally importantly, Ronaldo’s goals were arguably more significant; he scored a greater percentage of United’s overall goals in the Premier League, albeit by just one, and netted nearly twice as many game-winning goals – defined as goals that put his side in a lead they manage to hold onto. That probably owes as much to Liverpool’s defensive porousness though, especially in the first half of the season, as it does Salah’s inability to embrace key moments.
But there’s another element to the comparison as well. 2007/08 represented Ronaldo’s breakthrough season, when his undoubted potential metamorphosed into undeniable world-class ability, and Messi’s came a year later. Since then, though, both have jumped up more than a few gears. We’re talking about two players who have beaten Salah’s current return for 2017/18 13 times between them during the last ten years. Even though the Ballon d’Or is meant to be judged on twelve months in isolation, that incredible consistency undoubtedly factors into the logic of those who vote for football’s ultimate individual honour. Regardless, Messi’s actually outscored Salah by one this season, and Ronaldo’s just one behind.
Of course, much can change between now and December, when professionals around the world will be asked to cast their votes, and the first half of next season could affect opinions on Salah too. If he starts slowly, it will add to the fear that the attacker’s form is only temporary. If he starts strongly, on the other hand, doubters will be converted to the idea that Salah really is comparable to Messi and Ronaldo – at least over the period of twelve months.
That in itself, however, constitutes a monumental achievement. After a decade in which very, very few players have come close to matching the influence of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s coveted stars for even short spells, the fact Salah’s even being discussed as the man to potentially overtake them is almost an accolade in itself.