Let’s stop these Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi debates – for the time being at least. If we remove those supernova stars from the equation, just who is the next best player on the planet?
This week, we’re trying to untangle who that may be with a week-long series of polls on our Instagram account @Sport360. Head on over there and click on our stories to take part in the votes, where we pit 16 of the ‘next best’ players against each other in a bid to fill that third-place podium.
Here are our contenders …
Diving, injuries, off-the-field indiscretions, courting other clubs … controversy is never far away from Neymar. There remains no doubt though that he is one of the slickest operators when he’s on the field. Once considered by many on the same plane as Messi and Ronaldo, it’s up to you to decide whether he’s slipped back.
A bonafide star by the time he was 18, a World Cup winner at 19 … stagnating at 20? There’s no-one deadlier than Mbappe with space to run, but the world really wants to see his talents outside of France – for both club and country. One of the world’s best, but Ligue 1 is perhaps an asterisk against his name.
Virgil Van Dijk
Maybe the third best player should be the man who’s pipped Messi and Ronaldo to awards already this year? The Liverpool colossus won the UEFA Best Player of the Year for his role in transforming the Reds’ defence and guiding them to the Champions League title.
Joelinton thought he was away from Virgil van Dijk...— Goal (@goal) September 15, 2019
He was wrong 👊pic.twitter.com/pZqFWgsMvW
Sterling took his World Cup goal drought to heart so much that he’s not looked like stopping scoring since. With 39 strikes for England and Manchester City in little more than a year, he’s arguably the best player both his club and country have got.
The Egyptian King has found the net 75 times for Liverpool in two-and-a-bit seasons – he’d scored 68 in his seven years as a professional player before he rocked up to Anfield. One of the best left foots in the business.
That Bobby Firmino heel flick to set up Mo Salah was a thing of beauty. I loved the Sadio Mané goals but that Bobby flick and Mo goal was the highlight of the match for me. Up the Reds! pic.twitter.com/AhUYHUj0IH— Luke Foley - unbearable LFC fan (@LukeAFoley) September 15, 2019
It was an acrimonious split from Atletico, but however much money Barcelona paid – or were supposed to pay – for him, there’s no doubt the Frenchman is a wonderful weapon in Catalonia. How he copes without being the main man, though, remains to be seen.
Much like Griezmann, Hazard has made his dream move while at his peak, aged 28. At his best Hazard is an intoxicating mix of dribbling and finishing. He carried Chelsea on his back to the Europa League crown – what can he do for a Real Madrid attack that needs rebooting?
An enigma, no doubt, but just about as skilful as any player out there. It always feels like Pogba could do more, but take him out of that Manchester United midfield and they scarcely look midtable. What could he do at a club with better foundations?
Kevin De Bruyne
Fit again, on fire again. Manchester City appear even more dangerous this year and the Belgian, who missed so much of last season, is almost the only player who could improve them.
If you have any doubt over Koulibaly’s abilities, check out his ridiculous headed clearance against Inter Milan last season. Marries incredible physical attributes with supreme defensive intelligence.
A man who is addicted to clean sheets. The bedrock of Atletico Madrid’s ridiculous defensive record under Diego Simeone. Has kept the opposition out of the net in more than half of his appearances for Atleti.
Jan Oblak! You shall not PASS! 🧤🔥pic.twitter.com/m2zSg9WLzg— Bet9ja (@Bet9jaOfficial) September 9, 2019
Remember Loris Karius? It’s a fuzzy memory for Liverpool fans now the Brazilian is guarding every blade of grass in the penalty box. Calmness personified when operating either his hands or his feet.
No player has scored more La Liga goals than Lionel Messi – of course – than Benzema with 19 so far, and it’s just September. The silky striker has carried his fair share of Real’s goalscoring burden where so many others haven’t. Time to show him some proper appreciation.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen
Manuel Neuer is still Germany’s No1 but it’s about the only advantage he has over his clearly superior compatriot. Ter Stegen has thrown his name into the mix as one of the world’s best keepers with Barcelona – and as such he belongs here.
Six goals and an assist in six games in 2019/20. Not bad for a player whose team-mate (ahem, Mohamed Salah) doesn’t pass him the ball. When he cuts in with pace, the net tends to bulge pretty soon afterwards.
Sadio Mané has now scored 25 Premier League goals from the start of last season, no Liverpool player has more.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 14, 2019
The Main Man(é) strikes again. pic.twitter.com/paUKG9O0rk
Sometimes he’s out of sight, out of mind in the Bundesliga as Bayern Munich continue to dominate. You know what else is dominant? His goal record. He is just one goal shy of the 200-goal mark for Bayern and that’s come from just 248 games.
Donyell Malen scored all five goals as PSV Eindhoven thrashed former leaders Vitesse 5-0 to move level with Ajax at the top of the Eredivisie.
Malen’s solo show continued a magnificent month for the 20-year-old, who scored on his international debut for Holland against Germany last week.
The former Arsenal youth team player completed his hat-trick against previously-unbeaten Vitesse early in the second half before taking advantage of two late penalties to round off his memorable night.
Earlier, Nicolas Tagliafico scored twice as Ajax cruised to the top of the table with a 4-1 win over Heerenveen.
Despite Dusan Tadic’s early opener the hosts began slowly and allowed their opponents to pull level through Jens Odgaard after 22 minutes.
Odgaard had a second ruled out after a VAR review and Tagliafico responded by heading Ajax back in front on the stroke of half-time.
The reigning champions extended their lead seven minutes into the second half through Perr Schuurs, and Tagliafico completed the scoring just before the hour mark with an acrobatic finish.
AZ hit back from the shock of conceding a second-minute opener to sweep past Sparta Rotterdam 5-1.
Abdou Harroui wasted no time putting the visitors in front but Myron Boadu hauled the home side level within two minutes.
Boadu added his second just past the half-hour mark and Oussama Idrissi made it four on the stroke of half-time, before a late Teun Koopmeiners penalty completed the scoring.
Goals from John Yeboah and Evert Linthorst gave VVV a 2-1 win over Groningen, who replied through Ajdin Hrustic, while Utrecht eased to a 3-1 victory over struggling Emmen.
Copy provided by Press Association Sport
Neymar proved Paris St Germain’s hero on his return to the Ligue 1 champions’ side with a spectacular injury-time winner against Strasbourg.
The Brazilian has work to do to win back the support of the club’s fans after a summer of intense speculation about his future but, with the transfer window closed, Thomas Tuchel included him in the team for the first time this season.
And his dramatic late intervention was certainly a good start in regaining the supporters’ affections as he secured a 1-0 win for PSG.
After 92 minutes of frustration for Neymar and his team-mates, the world’s most expensive footballer met Abdou Diallo’s cross with an overhead kick that flew into the net off the inside of a post.
Neymar had the ball in the net again moments later but it was ruled out by VAR with Angel Di Maria offside in the build-up.
Not since Caen held PSG to a goalless draw at the end of the 2017-18 season had Tuchel’s side failed to find the back of the net and they looked like having to settle for a point again against Strasbourg.
Strasbourg were the only club not to lose a league game to the dominant capital outfit last season and, despite having not yet won this term, their organisation and defensive solidity saw them match PSG.
Neymar scored for Brazil in an impressive display against Colombia last week and Tuchel put him straight into the side as well as giving a debut to goalkeeper Keylor Navas, signed from Real Madrid.
Neymar had his first opening in the 15th minute but was unable to connect with the ball at the near post.
Strasbourg were not just sitting back and Navas was called into action in the 19th minute to make a save from Ludovic Ajorque.
PSG were certainly not peppering the Strasbourg goal. Neymar had another chance in the 55th minute but shot wide, and eight minutes later new signing Mauro Icardi was introduced in place of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.
As the hosts’ frustration grew, Navas was again called upon to keep out Ajorque.
Neymar then hit a post direct from a corner with only four minutes left, but his biggest contribution was yet to come.