At the start of 2015, Cristiano Ronaldo secured his third Ballon d’Or, and rightly so in the eyes of many. His performances throughout 2014 had been as consistent as they were brilliant, firing Real Madrid to Champions League glory, having already dragged his national side, Portugal, through to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Ronaldo also outscored his arch rival Lionel Messi in La Liga, as well as Europe, where he broke the record for most goals scored in a single UCL campaign. With an incredible 61 goals in 60 appearances for club and country in 2014, along with 20 assists, he secured the European Golden Boot for the 2013-14 season (shared with Liverpool’s Luis Suarez), and enjoyed a truly sparkling 12 months.
In winning the 2014 Ballon d’Or, Ronaldo had gained more than twice as many votes as Messi, while the Argentine’s current accomplices, Neymar and Suarez, were forced to look on from relative mediocrity - the former receiving little over 2% of the vote, and the latter being omitted from the original shortlist altogether in light of his latest biting incident.
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However, fast-forward one year and Messi has returned emphatically to his perch on top of the footballing world, securing an even higher proportion of the vote than Ronaldo had the previous year as he won the 2015 Ballon d’Or.
Messi’s share of the vote had rocketed by more than 25% in 12 months, whereas his rival’s had slipped by almost 10%. Furthermore, Neymar broke into the top three players across the globe - finishing in third place - while Luis Suarez managed to gain the fifth highest number of votes, although admittedly both remained some distance behind runner-up Ronaldo, statistically speaking.
However, many do now believe that in their time at Barcelona, the two have made up considerable ground on the Portuguese captain in terms of their performances, while Messi is restored to former glory due to regaining the Ballon d’Or, along with a sizeable shift in public opinion.
So, how did such a remarkable change in fortunes for the two footballing greats come about in a relatively short space of time?
A comparison between their scoring records in 2015 doesn’t seem to offer any explanation - in fact it would appear to quite clearly favour Ronaldo. He scored 57 goals in as many games for club and country throughout the calendar year, while Messi bagged fewer goals in more matches, with 52 in 61 (although this is still not exactly poor).
Perhaps an explanation for the Argentine’s success can be taken from the amount of assists the two managed last year. Messi set up 26 goals, only nine more than Ronaldo on 17, although it is the reason behind these figures which demonstrates why Messi was so rejuvenated in 2015.
Much of the credit must surely go to Luis Enrique, as his appointment as Barcelona manager before the 2014-15 season seemed to coincide with Messi, Neymar and Suarez beginning to alter their games and work together to form the fully fledged trio we now see dominating Europe in 2016.
The fact that Messi has returned to a position on the right of an attacking front three means that he can produce those intricate trademark runs from a deeper position, and he also has the option of cutting in onto his left peg to have a shot on goal himself or play a through ball to one of his two strike partners.
Ultimately, the arrival of Suarez, in particular, has actually taken some pressure off Messi’s shoulders, allowing him to return to the wider role from which he is more effective, and this also means the Uruguayan, and indeed Neymar, can play in their strongest positions as well, which is beneficial for the entire team.
Not only has this switch meant that Messi has flourished individually, but it has also led many to praise him for his lack of selfishness, sensational interplay and ability to share the limelight for the good of his teammates - a trait which Ronaldo has often been accused of lacking.
Messi’s newfound quality of being able to make one extra pass to ensure his side score above all else was demonstrated most recently and most prominently by the outrageous penalty routine he and Luis Suarez pulled off against Celta Vigo in their 6-1 victory earlier this month. In reality, ‘MSN’ are a genuine triumvirate, whose link up play is now almost as impressive as the individual ability of each, whereas the front three at Real Madrid of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema look far more like three (albeit extremely talented) separate entities.
Although, it must be said that Ronaldo has not been aided by the injury troubles of Gareth Bale since he arrived at the Bernabeu, as well as the fact that the press were overly keen to create a rivalry between the two from day one.
Messi also bounced back from the heartbreak of losing to Germany in the World Cup final and an underwhelming campaign with Barcelona in the 2013-14 season to play a major role in bringing no less than five trophies to the Nou Camp in 2015.
However, it must be remembered that, all this time, Ronaldo’s level barely dropped, and the vast majority of people would probably still say that he is the more complete attacker of the two, with extra aspects to his game as an individual. After all, he did break the all-time goalscoring record in the Champions League group stages during a single campaign - with a phenomenal 11 goals in six games, at the end of last year.
It seems, therefore, that whether or not you feel Ronaldo’s relative fall from grace over the past year or so is justified will depend on your preconceived views of the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry as a whole.
Ronaldo continues to outscore Messi this season - as he did in the previous campaign - but Barcelona seem a far superior side to Real Madrid right now and the Argentine is playing as big a role in their success as anyone, as well as producing some breathtaking moments - either on his own or by combining with his teammates.
However, here’s one thing that is far more certain: If Luis Suarez continues his current goalscoring form and stunning performances well into 2016, there is a good chance that none of last year’s nominees - nor the Uruguayan’s own unsavoury reputation - will be able to prevent him from finally releasing Messi and Ronaldo’s grip on FIFA Ballon d’Or award.