Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America have the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Following club seasons either laden with trophies or padded with statistical achievements – or, in some cases, a bit of both – a few elite-level performances could make the difference in the race to win France Football's famous award.

Stats Perform has chosen a shortlist of 14 players who could make themselves Ballon d'Or favourites should they sparkle over the next month...

 

Karim Benzema

Remarkably, Karim Benzema failed to win a trophy with Real Madrid despite registering 30 goals and nine assists in 46 games in all competitions.

That form did bring his international exile to an end, though, and if he keeps it up for France over the coming month, a Ballon d'Or challenge is not out of the question.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

Had Pep Guardiola's men finally got their hands on the Champions League trophy, the Ballon d'Or might be De Bruyne's already. Leading Belgium to Euros glory would probably do the job.

Ruben Dias

The other prime candidate for City's player of the season, Ruben Dias was a colossal performer at the heart of their defence after joining from Benfica, winning the Premier League's Player of the Season award.

Defenders' difficulties winning big individual prizes are well documented, and the last to lift the Ballon d'Or – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – did so after leading Italy to the World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes

Bruno Fernandes was heartbroken to lose the Europa League final on penalties as his wait for a trophy with Manchester United goes on.

However, a combined 46 direct goal involvements – the most of any Premier League player – means individual glory could be on the cards should Fernandes and Portugal shine.

Phil Foden

The PFA Young Player of the Year winner, Phil Foden blossomed in 2020-21 from prodigious talent to integral player for both City and England.

His Ballon d'Or chances are probably slimmer than those of a couple of his City team-mates, but long-awaited success for the Three Lions could put him right in the mix.

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

Winner of the Golden Boot at the last World Cup, Kane is England's undisputed star going into Euro 2020 and has every chance of topping the scoring charts again.

N'Golo Kante

Arguably the popular choice for the award, N'Golo Kante won the Champions League with Chelsea after being named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final and the final against City.

France are most observers' favourites to win the Euros and, if they do, Kante will surely be facing short odds to win the ultimate individual trophy – even if it's one in which he has little interest.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Winning the Euros with Poland might be a stretch, but finishing as top goalscorer is certainly achievable.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

With eight goals in his past nine games for Belgium, the 28-year-old could well be the man to fire Roberto Martinez's side to glory, which would make him very hard to overlook.

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day. The Euros could be his ticket to glory in 2021.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it does put him right in the mix. If he can finally win the Copa America with Argentina, Ballon d'Or number seven may well follow.

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he has only an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

He typically produces in a Brazil shirt, though, and winning the Copa America would propel him right back into the mix for the individual prize he supposedly craves above all others.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

Ronaldo won his fourth of five Ballons d'Or after Portugal triumphed at Euro 2016, and there's little doubt he would be vying for a sixth if they defend that trophy.

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

Should Uruguay upset the odds at the Copa America, you can bet Suarez will be in the running for the Ballon d'Or. Quite what Barca fans would make of that is hard to say.

N'Golo Kante believes Ballon d'Or speculation is way ahead of schedule as he attempts to add Euro 2020 glory to his Champions League success.

After an outstanding performance against Manchester City helped Chelsea become European club champions, Kante wants to make it a double by guiding France to success over the coming month.

The dynamic midfielder was tipped for the highest individual honour in football after Chelsea's 1-0 win over City in Porto, and Les Bleus team-mate Paul Pogba has thrown his support behind the growing clamour.

But Kante said he doesn't "pay attention" to praise of his displays, saying on Sunday: "What I hear can be touching, but I try to do what I have always done: be natural and give my best on the pitch. If it can give people pleasure, so much the better."

Asked about the prospect of winning the Ballon d'Or, Kante said: "It's a bit too soon to speak about that now. We're just getting to halfway through the year, there are six months to go, lots of competitions to play and it doesn't help to say that I deserve it now.

"Some years ago, I was in the top 10, that was the first time and it made me happy. To win it, that would be another story."

It was December 2017 when Kante cracked the top 10, finishing eighth in the vote.

"It's a great personal reward," Kante said of the prize. "I see it like the reward for an accomplished season by a player, but it's not an objective I work towards. Those who have won it are the players who have achieved the great things during their career."

Kante's France and Chelsea team-mate Olivier Giroud has little doubt the 30-year-old would be a worthy winner, describing him as "clearly a contender".

Speaking in a France news conference on Sunday, Giroud said: "We'll start talking to him about the Ballon d'Or if we win the Euros.

"He is stressed and tense when we talk to him about it! But it flatters him of course, even if he doesn't like compliments too much and prefers to keep a low profile. He deserves what happens to him."

Should Kante go on to land the award, which is handed out annually by France Football magazine, he would be the first Frenchman to do so since Zinedine Zidane.

Zidane took the honour in 1998, having inspired hosts France to win the World Cup for the first time.

Paul Pogba believes his France team-mate N'Golo Kante would be a worthy winner of the Ballon d'Or after playing a key role in Chelsea's Champions League success.

It was not too long ago that speculation suggesting Chelsea were tempted to cash in on Kante was rife, with the midfielder struggling with a few injuries in 2019-20.

But he enjoyed a strong 2020-21, evidenced particularly by his performances towards the end of the season in the Champions League.

The 30-year-old stamped his presence all over the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid and was named man of the match for both legs in a 3-1 aggregate triumph.

During the second encounter in London, Kante made five interceptions – only bettered by six from Jorginho – but also made more passes in the opposition half (25) and created more chances (three) than any other Chelsea player.

Heading into the final, he was one of just six midfielders in the 2020-21 competition with a passing accuracy above 85 per cent (86.4), an accuracy into the final third of above 80 per cent (82.1), more than 40 ball recoveries (63), over 500 touches (511) and at least 25 possession wins in the middle third of the pitch (42).

Then, in the final itself, Kante won 11 of 15 duels, recovered the ball 10 times for his team, and, as the shortest man on the pitch, won four out of seven aerial duels – nobody on his team won more. Chelsea beat Manchester City 1-0, with Kante a vital component as Pep Guardiola's men lost the midfield battle.

While some in the past might have limited Kante's strengths to the more defensive aspects of the game, his form in the Champions League highlighted that to be unfair, with the World Cup winner actually a far greater all-round player than many give him credit for.

Indeed, international colleague Pogba thinks he is deserving of the most illustrious individual prize of all.

"What I would like to say to the whole world is that the 'NG' we have seen in recent months has always been the same," Pogba told Eurosport. "We talk a lot about his performances but he has always been as good as ever.

"There was no Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi in the semi-final, so it's good to see the performances of the midfielders or even the defenders.

"I said a long time ago that it would be appropriate, if Chelsea won, for him to win the Ballon d'Or. It would be deserved, too.

"He's always performed well. I'm not surprised by what he's doing, I'm just surprised that he's still doing it. He has always played matches like that."

Bayern Munich head coach Hansi Flick is "absolutely convinced" Kylian Mbappe will win the Ballon d'Or in his career.

Mbappe was the star of the show in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final tie between Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain, scoring twice as the holders were beaten 3-2 in Germany.

Should the 22-year-old score in the return fixture in Paris, he will become the first French player to reach nine goals in a single Champions League season.

Mbappe has scored 33 goals and provided 10 assists in 39 games this season in all competitions. Only Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski (42) has scored more, while only the Poland star (50) and Tottenham's Harry Kane (45) have had more direct goal involvements.

Ahead of the second leg on Tuesday, Flick explained why there is no doubt in his mind that Mbappe will one day be crowned the best player in the world.

"He will win the Ballon d'Or one day, I am absolutely convinced of that," said Flick. "He has everything. He is fast, he has good technique and – most importantly – he scores a lot of goals."

Bayern forward Thomas Muller also admires Mbappe and accepts the Bundesliga champions' system will always make it risky to play against the PSG attack.

"He is very dangerous," said Muller. "With our style of play, space will automatically be created.

"Neymar and Mbappe usually stay up front, they don't defend but they stay in a dangerous situation for a counter-attacking chance. You're never going to be able to keep them out of the game completely."

Bayern had gone 17 Champions League games without defeat under Flick until PSG's victory last week and must now end a four-game losing away run against PSG if they are to progress.

Only three of the previous 50 teams to lose the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie have gone through to the next round, but one such instance involved PSG, when they were stunned by Manchester United at the last-16 stage two seasons ago.

"We had many chances in the first leg, but weren't so clinical. We have to do better. We know it won't be easy, but we will give everything," said Flick.

"We know we have to score at least two goals. It will be a tough task, but these are the games we play football for. We want to cause a mini upset in Paris. Of course, we'll be delighted if we manage that."

Robert Lewandowski has paid tribute to Jurgen Klopp for the impact he had on the striker's path to being crowned the best player in the world last month.

Bayern Munich star Lewandowski won The Best FIFA Men's Player award for 2020 after starring as Die Roten claimed a Bundesliga, Champions League and DFB-Pokal treble.

Between July 20, 2019 and October 7, 2020 – the period considered for the award – Lewandowski scored 60 club goals in 52 appearances across all competitions at a rate of one every 76 minutes.

He beat Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to the prize, with the Pole effectively recognised the best footballer in the world in the absence of a Ballon d'Or winner in 2020.

Lewandowski has enjoyed immense success since joining Bayern in 2014, though he already looked destined for greatness during his time at Borussia Dortmund, where Klopp had begun to mould him into the lethal forward he is now.

Writing in a reflective piece for the Players' Tribune in the wake of his FIFA award win, Lewandowski said of the current Liverpool boss: "Jurgen was not only a father figure to me. As a coach, he was like the 'bad teacher'. And I mean that in the best sense of the word.

"Not the one who made life easy for you and never expected anything from you, but the one who was strict with you. The one who put pressure on you and did everything to get the best out of you. That's the teacher who made you better. Jurgen was like that.

"He was not content to let you be a B-grade student. Jurgen wanted A+ students. He didn't want it for him. He wanted it for you.

"I could talk to Jurgen about anything. I could trust him. He is a family man, and he has so much empathy for what goes on in your private life."

Lewandowski took a season to truly adapt to German football after joining from Lech Poznan in his native Poland, as he only netted eight Bundesliga goals in 33 games during the 2010-11 campaign.

That remains the only season he has failed to reach double figures for league goals during his time in Germany, and Lewandowski considers Klopp's influence to be a major part of his improvement.

"He taught me so much," the striker continued. "When I arrived at Dortmund, I wanted to do everything quickly: strong pass, one touch only. Jurgen showed me to calm down — to take two touches if necessary.

"It was totally against my nature, but soon I was scoring more goals. When I had that down, he challenged me to speed it up again.

"One touch. BANG. Goal. He slowed me down to speed me up. It sounds simple, but it was genius, really."

Lewandowski's shot conversion rate rose from 13.1 per cent to 22.5 after his first season with Klopp and has never dipped below 20 per cent since.

In fact, the 32-year-old appears to be getting better with age, given his best ever return in terms of shot conversion was posted last term (29.8), and he is well on track to obliterate that personal best in 2020-21.

With 20 goals in 14 Bundesliga games, the Polish marksman is converting 44.4 per cent of his opportunities.

 

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