Who is winning the race for the Ballon d'Or?

Sports Mole takes an in-depth look at the front runners for this year's FIFA Ballon d'Or award.

As another year of spectacular football edges closer to its conclusion, the debate as to who is currently the best player in the world seems more open than at any point in recent years.

The shortlist for this year's prestigious FIFA Ballon d'Or was released at the end of last month, and a number of players across Europe can make a significant claim to the title.

It is a crown that Barcelona's Lionel Messi has dominated in recent years, winning it an unprecedented four times in a row if you include the 2009 award before the old Ballon d'Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year awards were merged.

However, with Bayern Munich dominating European football last season and Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in irresistible form for their clubs, this season's award may not be so straightforward.

With that in mind, Sports Mole takes a look at the front runners for the 2013 award.

Lionel Messi (Barcelona and Argentina)

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring the his team's second goal against Ajax during their Champions League group match on September 18, 2013© Getty Images

Lionel Messi has undoubtedly earned his place among the pantheon of football's greatest players, with his four Ballon d'Ors already catapulting him into the discussion of the best player in history alongside the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona at the age of just 26.

The diminutive Argentine attacker has been as impressive as ever in 2013, becoming the youngest player in history to reach 200 La Liga goals, equalling the great Alfredo di Stefano's record of 18 goals in El Clasico matches and passing the 300-mark in goals scored for Barcelona.

He also became the second-highest scorer in Champions League history behind Raul, found the net in a world-record number of consecutive league games and became the first player in La Liga history to score in consecutive matches against every team.

The 26-year-old was not done there, however. He finished the season with 60 goals in all competitions, including a league-high 46 in La Liga, helping Barcelona to a joint-record points haul of 100 as they regained the title from arch-rivals Real Madrid.

However, despite such impressive figures, Messi has struggled with injury at times this year and was unable to prevent Barcelona's humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals.

There is a sense that he is still finding his way back to his best this season despite becoming the sixth-highest goalscorer in La Liga history and the second-highest for Argentina.

He has scored six goals in seven games for his country in 2013, helping them reach the World Cup in Brazil next year.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid and Portugal)

Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Champions League Group B football match Real Madrid CF vs Juventus on October 23, 2013© Getty Images

Always the bridesmaid, only once the bride. Ronaldo is blessed with unbelievable football talent that will place him among the top 10 players to have ever played the game at the end of his career, but he is cursed that it has come at the same time as Messi.

Without the Argentine, Ronaldo would probably have five Ballon d'Or awards to his name and it would be him alongside Pele and Maradona in the discussion of the greatest ever.

However, the Real Madrid star must have high hopes of regaining the award he won in 2008 this year. He became the quickest player in Madrid's illustrious history to reach 200 goals, doing so in just 197 games for the club.

He has been in scintillating form so far this campaign, already scoring three hat-tricks and breaking the record for Champions League goals scored in a calendar year with a strike against Juventus.

Ronaldo also overtook the legendary Eusebio in the Portuguese scoring charts to move second behind Pauleta, although his side face a playoff against Sweden for a spot in next year's World Cup after a disappointing qualifying campaign.

One factor that could harm Ronaldo is his lack of silverware in 2013. Madrid finished second to Barcelona in the league, were beaten by local rivals Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey final and were eliminated from the Champions League by Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals.

He has scored 24 goals in 17 games so far this season and six in six for Portugal in 2013.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris Saint-Germain and Sweden)

PSG's Zlatan Ibrahimovic reacts during the match against Bordeaux on August 3, 2013© Getty Images

The destination of the Ballon d'Or is often determined by a player's form on the final straight and, in that respect, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is doing himself no harm at all.

The headline-grabbing Swede has hit a particularly lucrative run of form in recent weeks, but his quality has been evident throughout 2013.

He scored against his former club Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, almost helping PSG to an unlikely victory over the Catalan giants, while he ended the season as the assists leader in the competition with seven.

Domestically, the 32-year-old led PSG to their first Ligue 1 title since 1994, becoming the first player since Jean-Pierre Papin - another Ballon d'Or winner, incidentally - to score 30 goals in a single season in France's top flight.

He was named as the league's best player and has continued that form into the current campaign, scoring an audacious volleyed back-heel in a 4-0 win against Bastia before netting four times against Anderlecht in the Champions League less than a week later.

He scored another hat-trick in his most recent outing, but internationally has struggled with Sweden and faces a playoff against Ronaldo's Portugal for a place in next year's World Cup.

He has scored 14 goals in 15 games for PSG so far this campaign and seven in nine for Sweden this year.

Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich and France)

Bayern's Franck Ribery celebrates his goal in the UEFA Super Cup with manager Pep Guardiola on August 30, 2013© Getty Images

If the Ballon d'Or is to be heavily influenced by the achievements of a player's club side, then it is hard to look beyond Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery.

Ribery was perhaps the most impressive component of a Bayern team that swept all before them last season, bidding farewell to manager Jupp Heynckes with an incredible treble.

They dominated domestically, breaking numerous records on their way to the Bundesliga title, including most points, biggest lead over second place, fastest time to clinch the title, most wins in a season, longest winning streak, fewest losses, fewest goals against and most clean sheets in a season.

They cruised to success in the German Cup and also picked up the Super Cup, but their most impressive performances came in the Champions League, where they beat favourites Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the semi-final before going on to win against Dortmund in the Wembley showpiece.

They have made an unbeaten start to the current campaign, breaking the all-time Bundesliga record for games without losing and stretching their run to 37 matches with yesterday's 3-0 win over Augsburg.

Individually, Ribery ousted the likes of Messi and Ronaldo to be named as the Best Player in Europe for the previous season.

Gareth Bale (Real Madrid and Wales)

Real's Gareth Bale celebrates after scoring the opening goal against Sevilla on October 30, 2013© Getty Images

Few players have made more headlines this season than Gareth Bale, who became the world's most expensive footballer with an £85m transfer to Spanish giants Real Madrid.

The Welsh winger did not have a chance to showcase his considerable talents on the world stage, with Tottenham Hotspur not competing in the Champions League and Wales never likely to qualify for the World Cup.

However, domestically there were few who could match Bale's stunning form last season. The 24-year-old often won matches on his own for Spurs, most notably sealing a 3-2 win over West Ham United with an sensational long-range strike in the dying stages of the match.

Bale won the PFA Players' Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year and FWA Player of the Year awards for his displays, becoming just the second player in history - behind Cristiano Ronaldo - to win all three in a single season.

Following his protracted transfer saga to Madrid during the summer, Bale made a scoring debut before seeing his early Spanish career unsettled by injury.

However, he has recently returned to action in style, scoring two goals and creating two more in Madrid's 7-3 win over Sevilla.

Sports Mole's verdict: Cristiano Ronaldo

PSG striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring a penalty during the French Ligue 1 match against Marseille on October 6, 2013
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