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.

source: Getty Images
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’.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as do Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; while Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone

VIDEO: Reus scores stunning winner for Dortmund

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BERLIN (AP) Marco Reus scored his first Bundesliga goal of the season to give Borussia Dortmund a 1-0 win at his former team Borussia Moenchengladbach on Sunday.

Reus, Andre Schuerrle and Mario Goetze started for the first time together for Dortmund, and the three Germany teammates were all involved in the 32nd-minute goal.

Goetze played the ball to Schuerrle, who crossed for Reus on the right. Reus looked up and lifted the ball over ‘Gladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer to score off the underside of the crossbar.

“It was a good goal. I think he wanted to do that,” Sommer said.

Reus, who returned from a serious knee injury last weekend against Hamburger SV, said he wanted to play the ball further to the left “but the important thing is it went in.”

Goalkeeper Roman Buerki was man of the match for producing a string of saves to deny the home side what would have been a deserved equalizer.

Dortmund moved second, 19 points behind Bayern Munich, while ‘Gladbach stayed 10th after its fourth consecutive defeat without scoring.

Dortmund forward Michy Batshuayi failed to score for the first time in four games since his deadline-day switch from Chelsea, though he wasn’t helped by the poor condition of the pitch. Some players lost their footing as the grass gave way.