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Ribéry’s candidacy overshadows other deserving players in Ballon d’Or conversation

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Messi, Ronaldo, and Ribéry. Every indication says this year’s Ballon d’Or come down to those three Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo are givens in this conversation, and a standout year from Franck Ribéry on top of an astounding season from Bayern Munich has vaulted the France international into the discussion. With most ballots sent in by now, there’s no more room in the conversation.

Which, of course, won’t stop us from second-guessing the whole discussion. Take yesterday, when we had two chances to comment on Ribery’s curious candidacy, albeit in passing. This is from our post on Real Madrid’s support of Cristiano Ronaldo:

While the France international’s improved play without the ball is a huge factor in his candidacy, the Bayern winger scored 20 goals in 50 appearances for club and country in 2013.
Ronaldo? 67 goals in 56 appearances.

So the question voters have (hopefully) asked themselves: Are the unquantifiable aspects Ribéry brings to the game worth enough to transcend that 47-goal gap?

It’s a question that addresses the idea Franck Ribéry might have out-performed Cristiano Ronaldo, but let’s leave that aside, even if it’s great comments fodder. (Seriously, have at it, below.)

What I’m more concerned with is others’ exclusion from the conversation, and in that sense, Ribéry serves as the best reference point. If he was able to break into this discussion, one that’s normally dominated by Messi and Ronaldo, why haven’t others?

Part of that is how the award’s announced. The 23-man shortlist will be reduced to three finalists shortly, a whittling down that influences how we talk about the award. When voters are casting their ballots, they’re asked for first, second, and third choices, another reason Ballon d’Or discussions focus on trios. At this point, the conversation has picked one player to join Messi and Ronaldo, focusing all its attention on him. Toppling that big two is such a monumental task, it takes the wills of many to keep the narrative afloat.

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Arturo Vidal (left) is up to 20 all-competition goals this season after Wednesday’s hat trick in UEFA Champions League. (Photo: Getty Images.)

But the resulting tunnel vision isn’t fair to the handful of players who have as strong a case as Ribéry. Again, this is a guy who scored 20 goals, was crucial to many others, but has an offense-heavy case based largely on his intangible contributions to his team’s performance. If you recognize this is an individual award (and great teams are already rewarded by trophies), it’s not too difficult to argue players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Robin van Persie were better in 2013 (I’d only agree with one of those, though).

There are other two players, however, who’ve come on strong since the start of the club season – players who’ve received almost no attention for this award. Both are overshadowed by teammates more apt to pick up individual honors, something that kept one of them off the 23-man ballot entirely.

But Arturo Vidal deserves some attention here, especially if you’re using Franck Ribéry as the standard for what it takes to be in this discussion. Ribéry was unquestionably great last season, but if the argument hinges on his is production and influence on a successful team, Vidal’s case shares those merits. Though not as lauded as midfield partner Andrea Pirlo (who finished seventh in last year’s voting), he is the better player at this point in their careers, somebody who’s capable of being the best player in all facet of a game.

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If a case is going to rest on intangibles, Philipp Lahm’s may be best. Captain for Bayern Munich and the Germany National Team, the defender-cum-midfielder has proven vital for two highly successful teams.

This season, in all competitions, Vidal already has 10 goals and four assists from his central midfielder’s role. In 52 games this year for club and country, the Chilean international has scored as many goals as Ribéry (20) while seemingly making a greater defensive contribution. That’s not to say Vidal definitely had a better year than Ribéry (these players are close enough where personal preferences should be allowed to win out), but if Ribéry’s in a player of the year discussion, Vidal deserves a place, too.

On the surface, Ribéry appears to be getting credit for Bayern’s team accomplishments, but even if you think that has a place in individual awards, why aren’t other Bayern players getting the same benefit? For example, given how important we’ve seen Philipp Lahm be in defensive midfield this season, would it make sense to look at his play this fall, his contributions to Bayern’s success last season, and his role with a highly successful German national team and note his intangibles case probably transcends Ribéry’s? It’s worth talking about, particularly as Lahm’s play to start this season may have closed the gap Ribéry built up last spring.

And Ribéry did have a truly great year. Through June, he was Bayern’s best player, and the best player in the Bundesliga. But there are a handful of players who, over the course of the year, were just as good. While he may get some bonus points for his contributions to Bayern, it’s not like he was their only good player. And even when you give him that benefit of the doubt, it’s unclear he’s done enough to monopolize this conversation at the expense of Vidal, Lahm, Ibrahimovic, and others. One players greatness shouldn’t come at the expensive of all others’.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.