For nearly a decade, the received wisdom has been that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the best footballers in the world. Now perhaps it is time to revise that opinion.
Ronaldo is now a different player to the box-to-box raider who terrorised defences during the first decade of his career, and although he still provides an extremely dangerous presence around the penalty area he now lacks the all-round game to justifiably be considered as the world’s best player.
And although Messi’s outrageously good Clasico effort demonstrated that his best is still a million miles better than anyone else’s, the Argentine is now nearing his 30th birthday and starting to produce a greater number of ineffective performances.
This season’s Champions League away games at Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus were high-profile examples of Messi struggling to make a positive impact on the big stage. That was at least partly due to tactical deficiencies within Luis Enrique’s set-up, and it will be fascinating to see whether a new coach can inspire Messi to regain consistency next season.
In the meantime, Ronaldo and Messi’s decline (albeit relative and perhaps not permanent in the latter case) has opened up an opportunity for a new face to emerge in the quest to become the world’s greatest player.
There are several contenders, starting with another Barca star in the form of Neymar, whose ability to conjure the spectacular is without compare but whose fragile temperament and disposition for showboating does him no favours in public perception.
This Champions League campaign has also thrust Juventus star Paulo Dybala into the spotlight, and if the 23 year-old can lead the Italian giants to the trophy next month his star will continue to rise – something which Monaco starlet Kylian Mbappe will also hope to emulate over the coming weeks.
Although we’re only one-third of the way through the calendar year, there is also a growing case for the rarity of a non-forward winning this year’s Ballon d’Or: Real Madrid left-back Marcelo, whose attacking thrusts have played such a major role in his team’s campaign.
So Neymar, Dybala, Mbappe and perhaps even Marcelo are all vying to upset the long-established Messi-Ronaldo duopoly, while fans trapped inside the English Premier League bubble would probably also champion performers like Eden Hazard and Sergio Aguero.
But perhaps the player with the best claim for the status of being the world’s best is the man who finished third in last year’s Ballon d’Or vote: Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann.
It has been another excellent campaign for the Frenchman, who has netted 25 goals so far and spearheaded Atletico’s march to yet another Champions League semi-final with five goals, including crucial strikes in the first-leg of knockout round victories over Bayer Leverkusen and Leicester.
But Griezmann is the kind of player whose contribution cannot be measured by statistics alone, because one of his greatest assets – and something that makes him even more indispensable for Atletico – is his work-rate and his willingness to sacrifice personal glory for the sake of the team.
Unlike Ronaldo and Messi, whose egos mean they need to have a team built around them, Griezmann is prepared to fit into an existing structure and do whatever his coach demands.
If that means playing on the wing in a 4-5-1 formation, he’ll do it. If it means leading the line on his own, working hard to close down opposition defenders, he’ll do it. If it means dropping deep to help defend the edge of the penalty area before leading counter-attacking charges whenever possession is won, he’ll do that as well – and he’ll do it without complaint or dissent.
That blend of talent and attitude has allowed Griezmann to achieve a lot already, including a place in last season’s Champions League and Euro 2016 finals. But both those games were lost, meaning he is still to won a major trophy.
That needs to change, and there could be no better way for Griezmann to announce himself as the best player in the world by inspiring his team to glory in the Champions League.