The Ballon d'Or is arguably the most prized individual possession in the world of football. Fans of the beautiful game wait for the Ballon d'Or ceremony with bated breath every year to celebrate the winner of the most prestigious award in the modern era. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have dominated the award ceremony in the recent past and are in contention to win the Ballon d'Or every year.
The race for the Ballon d'Or is particularly interesting this year with several candidates putting in stellar performances and winning silverware this season. While this list does feature the usual suspects, some surprise names have also emerged and are in contention to win the Ballon d'Or.
Ballon d'Or Outsiders
Sergio Ramos has been Real Madrid's man of the hour on several occasions this year. Los Blancos' captain is set to find himself in the Ballon d'Or top ten after a string of crucial performances in La Liga this season. Ramos is also Real Madrid's designated penalty taker and has scored an astonishing 10 goals this season.
Thibaut Courtois has arguably been the best goalkeeper in the world this season. The Belgian shot-stopper has not put a foot wrong and seems to block everything that comes his way. Courtois has kept 18 clean sheets in La Liga this year and is set to win the Zamora trophy.
Mohamed Salah is not particularly likely to win the Ballon d'Or season but will have certainly put his name in the reckoning for years to come. With 19 goals in the Premier League, the Egyptian winger has championed Liverpool's victorious campaign and has had a nearly flawless season.
Ballon d'Or Underdogs
Virgil van Dijk
Barring an uncharacteristic error against Arsenal yesterday, Van Dijk has been the best defender in the world this season. The Dutchman has been a rock at the back for Liverpool and will find himself in the top five of the Ballon d'Or shortlist this season.
In the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema has taken up the responsibility of being Real Madrid's talisman and has been a lethal threat in the final third. Benzema has scored 19 goals in La Liga season and has been the primary driving force behind Real Madrid's success in the league.
Kevin De Bruyne
Kevin De Bruyne is the most complete midfielder in the world at the moment. The Manchester City talisman displays creativity and tenacity in equal measure on the pitch and is capable of some truly inspirational moments. De Bruyne's performances this season may see him make the Ballon d'Or top three for the first time.
Ballon d'Or Favourites
Robert Lewandowski is the front-runner to win the Ballon d'Or this year after a sensational year with Bayern Munich. The Polish striker has been scoring for fun this season and has an incredible 51 goals in 43 games. With a Bundesliga title and a DFB-Pokal under his belt, Lewandowski will feel hard done by if he is denied the Ballon d'Or this season.
Lionel Messi is the first of the two usual suspects that are generally touted to win the Ballon d'Or every year. The Argentine genius has developed into more of a playmaker in recent weeks and became the first player in La Liga history to score 20 goals and bag 20 assists in the same season. Messi's lack of trophies this season, however, will count against him in the Ballon d'Or rankings.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been well below his supernatural best this season and while he may not have bossed the Serie A, he still has an astonishing 28 goals to his name in the league. The Portuguese forward is set to win the Serie A title this season and can potentially improve his chances to win the Ballon d'Or by working his magic in the Champions League.
Verdict - Robert Lewandowski
Robert Lewandowski is arguably the only player that truly deserves to win the Ballon d'Or this season. The Bayern Munich striker has been unstoppable in the final third and has carried his team to an eighth consecutive Bundesliga title as well as the coveted DFB-Pokal.
Lewandowski can also win the treble this season if he is able to replicate his heroics in the Champions League. The Polish striker already has 11 goals in Europe's flagship competition and a UCL title will cement him as an outright favourite to win the Ballon d'Or.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo may have won 11 Ballon d'Ors between them but the duopoly is set to be broken for the second time this decade. Unless the two modern-day legends can manage an otherworldly Champions League campaign, Robert Lewandowski should be able to win his first Ballon d'Or by a comfortable margin.