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Messi, Haaland, Mbappe - the top five candidates for the 2023 Ballon d'Or

Ahead of Monday's 2023 Ballon d'Or ceremony, Sports Mole takes an in-depth look at the top five contenders for this year's prestigious accolade.

Paris' Theatre du Chatelet is the venue for this year's highly-anticipated Ballon d'Or ceremony on Monday, as the world's finest footballers swap boots for bow ties and tracksuits for tuxedos on an evening of celebration and camaraderie.

Alongside the Ballon d'Or Feminin, the young player's Kopa Trophy and the goalkeeper's Yashin Trophy, one soul from a list of 30 esteemed nominees will be presented with the 18-carat gold trophy by legendary former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba.

While each and every contender's place on the shortlist is merited, a few inevitably stand out head and shoulders above their fellow candidates, and the nominees will slowly be whittled down to a select few ahead of Monday's crowning.

With that in mind, Sports Mole takes a closer look at five of the leading candidates to take home the 2023 Ballon d'Or trophy in the French capital.


Lionel Messi

Argentina's Lionel Messi on October 17, 2023© Reuters

In this day and age of social media, advanced technology and non-stop leaks, there is no longer a palpable sense of anticipation for the Ballon d'Or ceremony, where few supporters bat an eyelid when the bookies' favourite saunters onto the stage to collect their prize.

This year, Argentina icon and Inter Miami leader Lionel Messi is - rather controversially - being tipped to add Ballon d'Or number eight to his unparalleled collection of individual awards, having ended 16 years of personal hurt on the international stage to lead La Albiceleste to World Cup stardom.

From his seven outings in Qatar, Messi only failed to register a goal or assist in Argentina's final group fixture against Poland, registering seven goals and three assists en route to glory, and all but three of those contributions came in the knockout stages.

Following a brace in the final and quintessential composed penalty in the most nerve-wracking shootout, Messi was bestowed with the tournament's Golden Ball - becoming the first men's player to collect the prize on more than one occasion - while also finishing second in the Golden Boot race behind former teammate Kylian Mbappe.

Alongside his Middle Eastern eminence, Messi rediscovered his Midas touch with Paris Saint-Germain to lead the club to a second successive Ligue 1 title, coming up with 32 goal contributions in as many matches - 16 of his own and a league-high 16 assists to boot - as he overtook Cristiano Ronaldo to become the highest scorer in Europe's top five leagues.

The fallout from his unauthorised Saudi Arabia trip led to an acrimonious departure, but since swapping France for Florida, the 36-year-old has lit up MLS with his perpetual attacking qualities, and his return to Parisian soil on Monday is expected to be a memorable one.


Erling Haaland

Manchester City's Erling Haaland celebrates scoring their second goal on October 25, 2023© Reuters

While Messi is expected to fly back across the Atlantic with number eight in his suitcase, Manchester City's record-breaking marksman Erling Haaland remains many people's pick for the top prize, and with extremely good reason too.

As Pep Guardiola's side struggled to keep pace with Arsenal at the top of the Premier League, some speculated whether Haaland's presence in the team may have been more of a hindrance than a help, but the Scandinavian sensation quickly put an end to such balderdash.

Prior to Haaland's arrival from Borussia Dortmund, the all-time Premier League season record of 34 goals had stood since the 1994-95 campaign, when Andy Cole followed in Alan Shearer's footsteps from the 1993-94 season, and many revered forwards tried and failed to usurp both men over the years.

Up stepped Haaland, who netted Premier League goal number 35 to write his name into Premier League folklore with five games to spare, after which he let his hair down - sometimes literally - and added goal number 36 against Everton to surge further out of sight.

Despite not netting a single Champions League goal after the quarter-finals, Haaland's tournament-high 12 strikes - including a fantastic five in one game against RB Leipzig - were crucial in exorcising Man City's European demons, while he also added an FA Cup hat-trick against Burnley to his repertoire in a terrific treble-winning season.

The 23-year-old has already taken home the FWA Footballer of the Year, Premier League Player and Young Player of the Season and PFA Players' Player of the Year awards, in addition to the European Golden Shoe, but he may be kept waiting for his inaugural Ballon d'Or honour.


Kylian Mbappe

Kylian Mbappe celebrates scoring for Paris Saint-Germain on March 4, 2023© Reuters

Kylian Mbappe continued to push incessant media speculation to one side in the 2022-23 campaign, where he became the greatest goalscorer to even don the PSG jersey.

After surprisingly turning his nose up at a free transfer to Real Madrid, Mbappe found the back of the net a staggering 41 times in 43 competitive matches under Christophe Galtier, taking home a fifth consecutive Ligue 1 Golden Boot with 29 efforts to his name.

Records continued to tumble at the Frenchman's feet, as he joined Haaland in an exclusive five goals club during a 7-0 Coupe de France obliteration of Pays de Cassel, becoming the first-ever PSG men's player to register a quintet of strikes in a single match.

Only a few weeks later, the 24-year-old let emotion take over in a 4-2 win over Nantes, where he scored his record-breaking 201st goal for Les Parisiens to leave Edinson Cavani in his wake, although his efforts to break PSG's Champions League hoodoo proved unfruitful again.

Mbappe experienced similar heartache during the defence of France's World Cup crown against Messi's Argentina, although he emulated Sir Geoff Hurst with an unforgettable hat-trick in the final before cutting an aloof figure as he collected his Golden Boot award next to an overjoyed Messi and Emiliano Martinez.

Not a single transfer window goes by without fresh revelations about Mbappe's future, which will continue to be the case while he runs down the final few months of his PSG terms, but his on-field achievements should dominate the talk of his presence at Monday's ceremony.


Rodri

Manchester City's Rodri celebrates scoring their first goal on February 12, 2023© Reuters

With the indomitable Haaland smashing records left, right and centre in sky blue, a few of Guardiola's crop may boast the unsung heroes label, but not Rodri, whose importance to the Citizens' squad is on par or arguably greater than his Norwegian counterpart's.

The 27-year-old's potential in the number six role was evident from his embryonic days at Atletico Madrid, as evidenced by Man City's decision to fork out £61.1m for his signature, but he truly kicked it up a notch in the 2022-23 season, making the treble winners tick week in week out.

As well as his crisp passing and ever-reliable defensive contributions, Rodri provided a consistent goal threat from distance, registering four goals and seven assists last season, one of which saw the Spain international score the only goal against Inter Milan to propel Man City to a long-awaited Champions League title.

Rodri's display in Istanbul earned him the Champions League final man of the match award, and the Spaniard also finished third in the Premier League for progressive passes (260), while also completing 91.2% of his balls to a teammate - only four players posted a better percentage.

While Haaland took home a plethora of individual prizes, Rodri pipped his teammate to the Champions League Player of the Season award - in addition to making the PFA Team of the Year - and only eight days after City completed the treble, the midfielder won the UEFA Nations League Finals Player of the Tournament prize as Spain saw off Croatia in the showpiece match.


Jude Bellingham

England's Jude Bellingham reacts on October 17, 2023© Reuters

One of two players to be nominated for both the Ballon d'Or and Kopa Trophy - the other being Bayern Munich's Jamal Musiala - fans and pundits alike are running out of superlatives to describe Real Madrid and England protege Jude Bellingham.

Fighting off a collection of Europe's most celebrated and affluent teams to retain his services for the 2022-23 season, Borussia Dortmund were on the cusp of ending Bayern's everlasting reign of Bundesliga dominance last season, thanks in no small part to Bellingham's eight goals and five assists in league action.

While still a teenager, the 20-year-old was even tasked with the responsibility of captaining Edin Terzic's team on two occasions in the Bundesliga campaign, although it ultimately ended in heartbreak for Dortmund, whose final-day 2-2 draw with Mainz 05 allowed Bayern to keep hold of their top-flight crown.

Bellingham - who was only an unused substitute in that game following an injury - could not stem the waterworks as he swatted a camera away on the pitch, but away from his top-flight anguish, the midfield maestro etched his name in the Champions League record books.

With goals in successive fixtures against Copenhagen, Manchester City and a double-header with Sevilla, Bellingham became the first-ever English teenager to score in four straight Champions League matches, while only Mbappe and Haaland also achieved the feat before turning 20.

Bellingham's remarkable start to life at Real Madrid will have no bearing on this year's Ballon d'Or result, but should the 2003-born lynchpin continue scoring for fun at the Bernabeu, it will be difficult to overlook him for the prestigious award in 2024.

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Real Madrid midfielder Jude Bellingham on June 15, 2023
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