“I always said that the Ballon d’Or must be two parts: one for [Lionel] Messi and one for the others,” Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said when asked about the potential winner of the award in 2023.
Messi is undeniably leading the pack after a year where he finally lifted the previously impossible World Cup trophy. The diminutive Argentine is looking to add an eighth trophy to his mantelpiece and there are few contenders who can deny him the award.
One of those who have the ability to stop the former Barcelona star is Erling Haaland.
The Norwegian colossus enjoyed a record debut in Manchester and ended the season with plenty of individual and collective silverware. Haaland dominated defenses in the Premier League and in Europe, putting up Messi-like numbers that put City in a legendary treble-winning position.
It won’t be easy to topple Messi this year as this is likely to be the 36-year-old’s final shot at another Ballon d’Or, but there’s no complaining if Haaland usurps the Inter Miami striker on October 30.
Haaland broke a lot of records last season / Quality Sport Images/GettyImages
Any Haaland doubters who predicted a slow start to the former Borussia Dortmund striker’s Premier League career were humbled last season.
After being rather naively written off by certain sections of the social media scene following his disappointing Community Shield performance, the 6’4 center wasted no time mocking his doubters.
Haaland scored 15 goals in his first ten Premier League games, including three hat-tricks, while he scored five in his first three Champions League games. While the 23-year-old slowed down somewhat by his incredibly lofty standards towards the end of last season, he finished the campaign with an incredible 52 goals in 53 appearances for City.
36 of these came in just 35 league games, breaking the record previously held by Mohamed Salah for most goals in a 38-game Premier League season. Factoring in the fact that he also dished out nine assists for teammates, that’s 61 goal contributions – an average of 1.17 per game.
While Messi netted 41 goals in as many games for Paris Saint-Germain last season, the competitiveness of Ligue 1 pales in comparison to the Premier League.
Haaland helped Man City win their first Champions League title / Craig Mercer/MB Media/GettyImages
Guardiola has arguably molded this Man City side into the best ever in English football, but the Spaniard needed a Champions League trophy to back it up. After years of heartbreaking exits, he finally managed to do what he was brought to the Etihad to do.
There had long been allegations that Guardiola could not win the Champions League without Messi, but Haaland, among others, helped dispel that particular theory when City beat Inter 1-0 in last year’s final.
Haaland scored 12 Champions League goals in just 11 games last season, including five in just 63 minutes against former Bundesliga outfit RB Leipzig in the last 16. Bayern Munich, with his consistency in front of goal, proved invaluable.
It wasn’t easy for City to claim the Premier League title, despite always seeming somewhat inevitable. Arsenal’s renaissance under Mikel Arteta pushed the Cityzens all the way and things could have been very different without Haaland’s prolific scoring from the opening game to the final weeks of the season.
There was, of course, victory in the FA Cup as well, which completed an incredible treble for Guardiola’s men. While he was rested several times in the first few rounds, Haaland scored a hat-trick against Burnley in the quarter-finals and played the entirety of City’s 2-1 final victory against local rivals Manchester United in early June.
Haaland’s Norway did not qualify for the World Cup / JAVAD PARSA/GettyImages
The driving force behind Messi’s 2023 bid for the Ballon d’Or is his success at the World Cup in December 2022, leading Argentina to world dominance at the tournament in Qatar. However, it was a different winter season for Haaland.
Norway failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, leaving one of the world’s best forwards in Manchester while the majority of the world’s best footballers left for Asia.
It always seems harsh to overlook players based solely on international success when it comes to individual awards, especially given that a significant number of players represent nations that will never compete for the biggest prize.
Norway have only qualified for the World Cup three times before, never in the 21st century, so it is unfair to judge Haaland’s worthiness of an individual award on international performance given his nation’s lack of international firepower.
Since the turn of the century, very few players have won the Ballon d’Or not representing a powerhouse nation in international football – arguably only Ukraine’s Andriy Shevchenko and Czech Republic’s Pavel Nedved.
The Norwegian’s lack of presence at major tournaments puts Haaland at a natural disadvantage, but it might be a bit unfair to put Haaland at a disadvantage due to his country’s international inferiority.
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