There is a rare chance to drawn a breath in the football world. The European season is over, and although there are a number of players departing for the Confederations Cup in Russia, there is no truly major international competition taking place.
This is, therefore, as good a juncture as any to take stock of what 2017 has offered to date. In particular, it is a good opportunity to analyse the outstanding individuals over the course of the last six months and speculate who will be named the game’s finest player come awards season in December.
Will the battle for the Ballon d’Or be another fight between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi? The pair have won the last nine editions of the award between them, but is it finally time for someone to break their stranglehold?
Here are five leading contenders for the game’s most prized individual accolade at the halfway point:
5 N’Golo Kante
Kante has emerged from obscurity to become a genuine star over the course of 18 months, recording Premier League titles with both Leicester and Chelsea. In the Ballon d’Or voting for 2016, he was outshone by both Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, yet over the last year, there has been a growing appreciation of his talents.
The energetic midfielder’s transfer to Chelsea has been credited as a major reason for their dramatic rise to become English champions, and he defied history by becoming one of the few defensive players to win Players’ Player of the Year. One of the few factors to count against him, however, is a lack of European stage to prove himself on.
4 Lionel Messi
Of course, Barcelona star Lionel Messi will be one of the leading contenders to win the game’s greatest individual honour once again this year, yet the odds on the Argentine adding to his record tally of five gongs appears to be stacked against him. His issue has not been his individual level – he has scored over a goal per game on average – but the fact that Barcelona have faded.
A Copa del Rey is all the team has to show for their efforts this season, and there is little doubt that will count against the 29-year-old. However, he did finish the season as Europe’s most prolific goalscorer, winning the Golden Shoe for the fourth time after netting 37 times in 34 outings for Luis Enrique’s men.
With the big prizes already dished out, though, it will take an exceptional second half to 2017 to see him overtake his rivals.
3 Gianluigi Buffon
There were many who were eager to see veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon win the Champions League against Real Madrid last weekend. In part, this was because he had never won the competition previously, but it was also due to his outstanding performances in helping Juventus reach that stage of the competition.
He was decisive in their group, notably saving a penalty from Alexandre Lacazette when the score was still 0-0 to help his side to victory in Lyon, then producing another outstanding display when the sides met again in Turin. Defensively, Juve continued to excel until they ran up against Real Madrid in the final; a match where they conceded more than they had in the entire competition previously.
Despite the disappointment in Cardiff, Buffon enjoyed another terrific season, and his performances in the Serie A, which he won again, plus his romantic story give him an outside shot of personal glory.
2 Sergio Ramos
Real Madrid’s captain has been perhaps their most consistent player over the course of the season as a whole. The combative centre-back is the beating heart of the Bernabeu outfit, embodying the spirit and passion of the team, all the while offering a world-class presence in the middle of the defence.
Ramos, though, is more than just a simple defender; he is a genuine scoring threat, too, and often pops up when the stakes are greatest. His last-gasp equaliser against Barcelona in December’s Clasico came so late in 2016 it should come into consideration for this award, particularly as it proved so vital in the title race, and he also struck a vital late winner against Betis.
The 31-year-old does not play in a glamour position and is, therefore, something of an outside for such an individual award, but there is no doubt he is currently the game’s best centre-back and is integral to Madrid’s success.
1 Cristiano Ronaldo
The winner of the 2016 Ballon d’Or is the red-hot favourite to claim the prize for the fifth time, thereby equalling Lionel Messi’s record tally. The Real Madrid striker might have struggled comparatively in La Liga in terms of scoring during 2016-17, but when it came to the big stage he excelled.
Two goals in the Champions League final as Los Blancos claimed the trophy for a 12th time with a comfortable 4-1 win over Juventus have gone a long way to putting him well out in front of his rivals, while he also scored six times in his last four Primera Division appearances to help Zinedine Zidane’s men to a first domestic title since 2011-12.
Often, it is the man for the big occasion who has won this coveted crown, and CR7 has certainly been that in 2017 so far.