Saturday sees Liverpool and Real Madrid go head-to-head in the final of the Champions League.
After the trophy has been lifted, the medals handed out and the confetti all cleaned up, there will be talk of more individual matters.
Discussions have already begun about which player will take home the coveted Ballon d’Or trophy this year, with the goalposts slightly moved for 2022.
As the World Cup takes place in November and December, it has been decided that this year’s award will be handed out in October, with the tournament in Qatar being included in consideration for the 2023 gong.
It will also take into account the entirety of the 2021-22 season, rather than just the calendar year period.
Therefore, it is probably safe to say that any players who play a key role in winning the Champions League will give themselves a huge advantage when it comes to voting later this year, and there are three in particular who have already been popping up in conversation .
Here, Stats perform takes a look at Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Karim Benzema, breaking down the numbers and trying to predict which one might be donning a tuxedo with a beaming smile at October’s ceremony.
SAVE THE DATE AND SEE YOU IN OCTOBER!
— Ballon d’Or #ballondor (@francefootball) May 24, 2022
At the halfway point of the season, you would have been forgiven for suspending betting on at least the Premier League’s player of the year, and arguably the Ballon d’Or as well.
Salah was unstoppable as Liverpool looked to push Manchester City in the title race, as well as steer their way through a tricky Champions League group.
The Egypt international scored a hat-trick as Liverpool demolished Manchester United 5-0, becoming the first away player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford for over 18 years, since Ronaldo did so for Real Madrid back in April 2003 in the Champions League.
At that point, Salah had bagged 15 goals in 12 games for Liverpool for the season, and had only failed to score in one.
He had 23 goals in all competitions to his name by the time he left to compete in the Africa Cup of Nations in early January, where he helped Egypt reach the final in Cameroon.
It was heartbreak for Salah and The Pharaohs though, losing on penalties to Senegal, before exactly the same outcome against the same opposition in their World Cup qualifying play-off almost two months later.
Salah returned to score decisive goals against Inter in the Champions League last 16 and Norwich City in the Premier League, but after that went 11 games in all competitions without scoring a goal in open play, before bagging another two against United in a 4-0 win at Anfield.
There were a further seven games without a goal at all after that, though when he came off the bench to score against Wolves on the final day of the season, if it had not been for City’s comeback against Aston Villa, Salah would have scored the goal to win his team the Premier League title.
Salah ended the season with 31 goals in all competitions, as well as 15 assists. He lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup before missing out on Premier League glory.
If he can get the “revenge” he is openly seeking against Madrid for their 2018 Champions League final victory against the Reds and make it a trophy treble, he could well be top of the list in the Ballon d’Or voting.
Like Salah, Mane had an impressive start to the season as he scored in nine of his team’s first 16 games in all competitions, though had a drier period just before the Africa Cup of Nations, scoring just once in 10 outings.
Where Mane arguably has the edge over his rivals is his showing in Cameroon. Though he only scored three goals during the tournament, he played a big part in key moments.
He netted a pressure stoppage-time penalty in the opening game against Zimbabwe that turned out to be their only goal in the group stage, therefore crucial in them progressing. Mane then scored the opener against Cape Verde in the last 16, and a late clincher against Burkina Faso in the semi-finals.
Mane then took the weight of a nation on his shoulders as he slammed home the winning penalty in the shoot-out against Egypt in the final.
By the time he returned to club action with Salah, Luis Diaz had arrived at Anfield and already taken up residence in Mane’s usual position on the left of the front three.
It wasn’t a problem, though, as Mane simply reinvented himself as a central striker, scoring a vital winner against West Ham before repeating the trick of scoring a pressure penalty against Egypt to send Senegal to this year’s World Cup.
Mane really started to motor as Liverpool looked to win an quadruple, scoring nine goals in his last 13 games, including in both the league draw and FA Cup semi-final win against Man City, and then in both legs of the Champions League semi -final against Villarreal.
His numbers still might not quite match up to Salah or Benzema, with 23 goals and two assists in 50 appearances in all competitions at club level, but he did only score two fewer non-penalty goals than Salah (25).
His ability to turn important games and a potential medal collection of EFL Cup, FA Cup, Africa Cup of Nations and Champions League all since January should put him in a strong position.
Calling Benzema the man for the big occasion still doesn’t feel like it quite does him justice. The 34-year-old is in the form of his life, showing that age really is just a number.
Benzema has made headlines throughout the season, mostly for his uncanny ability to come up with important goals in the Champions League, and he is without doubt the main reason Madrid made it past the last 16, let alone all the way to the final.
Five goals in the group stages from Benzema helped Los Blancos to a last 16 meeting with Paris Saint-Germain, with Kylian Mbappe and company taking a 1-0 lead into the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Mbappe was dominating again that night, making it 2-0 on aggregate and getting through time and again, until Benzema took over.
His 17-minute hat-trick turned the tie on its head, and sent Carlo Ancelotti’s team through to face Chelsea, who Benzema also scored a treble against at Stamford Bridge.
Though Madrid struggled in the second leg at home, Benzema’s extra-time strike sent them into the semis, where Man City awaits.
Two more goals from Benzema in the 4-3 defeat at the Etihad Stadium gave them a fighting chance, and though it was Rodrygo who caused all the drama in the closing stages of normal time of the second leg, it was Benzema from the penalty spot who ultimately took his team to the final.
As this year’s Ballon d’Or takes into account the whole season, you would have to assume that includes the 2020-21 Nations League, which Benzema and France won in October, with his goals in the semi-final win against Belgium and the final success against Spain seeing Les Bleus lift the trophy.
Benzema was also unstoppable in LaLiga, with his 27 goals being nine more than anyone else managed in the Spanish top flight, and he scored an incredible 44 goals in 45 games in all competitions.
He has also been almost as creative as Salah and more so than Mane, with 83 chances and 20 big chances created (a chance from which the attacker would be expected to score), while Salah creates 85 chances and 21 big chances, and Mane 63 chances and 14 big chances.
So, there are the three cases. For me, if the Spanish giants win, I think you can close the betting on Benzema.
However, Liverpool should lift the trophy, it could lead to an interesting few months as people debate whether Salah’s slightly superior numbers or Mane’s international credentials mean more.
Whatever happens, you can be sure that whichever horse you back, you will end up having an argument with someone somewhere who thinks Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo should win the crown again.