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With this year’s Ballon d’Or to be announced this evening, we’ve taken a unique look at the three contestants by comparing only their performances in their biggest games. So who had the best year, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Manuel Neuer?

Big Games Only – Who Is The Real Ballon d’Or?

Ronaldo

Last year’s Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo has taken to this year the same way he did the last. Focusing purely on the calendar year, rather than the football season, Ronaldo was emphatic throughout 2014, producing truly fantastic stats and unforgettable moments of footballing magic. With the 51 club appearances the Portuguese star has made for Real Madrid, he found the net a staggering 56 times whilst providing 21 assists for his Madrid teammates. With an average of more than a goal a game at club level, Ronaldo has fallen just three goals shy of matching his 2013 record, which rightfully earned him that year’s Ballon d’Or. More than just an unstoppable goal machine, Ronaldo is the key player at Real Madrid, we have broken down Ronaldo’s key appearances of 2014 to see just how invaluable he is to Ancelotti’s side and just how worthy he is of a second consecutive Ballon d’Or success.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Key League Fixtures In 2014:

March 2 2014 – Atletico Madrid 2 – 2 Real Madrid

The first of the big games for Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid came away at the eventual 2013/14 La Liga Champions Atletico Madrid. Ronaldo’s performance was key to earning a difficult draw for Madrid with the Portuguese star having seven shots in total and crucially finding the net.

March 23 2014 – Real Madrid 3 – 4 Barcelona

Our first taste of El Clasico came in late March and as usual, it didn’t disappoint. This goal-fest was not a crowning night for Ronaldo, despite continuing his fantastic tradition of El Clasico goals. Madrid lost out to Barcelona due to a phenomenal Lionel Messi hat-trick. The opposite of what Ronaldo will have hoped for.

September 13 2014 – Real Madrid 1- 2 Atletico Madrid

Yet another big game in which Carlo Ancelotti’s men lost out on crucial points came when Madrid lost out to local rivals Atletico Madrid in a home game which dealt a huge blow to Real’s title ambitions. Despite the loss, Ronaldo was Madrid’s goal scorer.

October 25 2014 Real Madrid 3 – 1 Barcelona

The first success for Real Madrid in their key domestic games came in late October as the team from Madrid beat bitter rivals Barcelona 3-1 with Ronaldo finding the equalising goal after Barcelona went 1-0 up early on through Neymar.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Key European Fixtures In 2014:

April 2 2014 Real Madrid 3 – 0 Borussia Dortmund

Real Madrid eased to victory over German side Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Ronaldo’s goal in this tie drew him level with Lionel Messi and Jose Altafini with a record 14 goals in a singe Champions League campaign.

April 23 2014 Real Madrid 1 – 0 Bayern Munich

After dispatching with Bundesliga’s Borussia Dortmund in a fairly underplayed and easy manner, Real faced Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of the Champions League. It was a tough tie for both sides only settled by Benzema’s goal, giving Madrid a crucial lead from the first leg.

April 29 2014 Bayern Munich 0 – 4 Real Madrid

In what was arguably Ronaldo’s best performance of 2014, the Portuguese star netted twice in an emphatic four goal victory over a strong Bayern Munich side.

May 24 2014 Real Madrid 4 -1 Atletico Madrid

Surely the highlight of any Real Madrid fans 2014 was their fantastic Champions League final success over bitter local and league title rivals Atletico Madrid. A compelling tie with a somewhat over glamourised score-line provided a huge task to the Real Madrid side who showed their metal with an impressive win. Ronaldo scored in this tie, capping his fantastic season in style.

Manuel-Neuer

Long an outstanding goalkeeper, particularly among his generation of players, Neuer earned new appreciation last year as his role in the Bayern Munich team evolved under Pep Guardiola. Almost acting like a sweeper at times, the big German would often be seen far from his penalty area as he halted opponents’ counter attacks or pushed his own team further forward to maintain dominance. Neuer’s record of twenty clean sheets in thirty-one Bundesliga matches last year suggests just how effective this was for his side, and we saw more of this great form when with his national team. He was awarded the FIFA Golden Glove after Germany’s World Cup win, another reason why the now-captain of his country is in serious contention to be just the second ever goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or. When it comes to big games, the barometers used to measure Neuer’s resolve and effectiveness is significantly different to that of his fellow nominees, with clean sheets and key saves as the indicators rather than goals and assists.

Manuel Neuer’s Key League Fixtures In 2014:

March 15 2014 – Bayern Munich 2 – 1 Bayer Leverkusen

Another top four side visited Munich in the form of Leverkusen, and it took a fingertip save from Neuer to deny Leverkusen captain Simon Rolfes from long-range in the first half. The keeper’s trademark outfield clearance was required in the second half to prevent an equaliser on the break from the visitors, and Bayern went on to gain a 2-0 lead. Leverkusen headed in a late consolation courtesy of Stefan Kiessling, but Neuer had nonetheless played his part in his team’s victory.

November 1 2014 – Bayern Munich 2 – 1 Borussia Dortmund

Although they have been struggling this season, any match against Dortmund is always a big one for Bayern Munich, and their rivals would step up to the occasion. Marco Reus headed Dortmund in front with half an hour gone, with the ball already beyond Neuer before he could dive to reach the effort. It was, however, one of just four shot son target from the visitors and Bayern went on to win the game with a late penalty.

December 6 2014 – Bayern Munich 1 – 0 Bayer Leverkusen

The battle between first and third in the final month of 2014 provided few tests for Neuer, who only had one shot on target to deal with the entire match. Said effort went past the keeper but was cleared by Dante on the goal line.

Manuel Neuer’s Key Cup Fixtures In 2014:

May 17 2014 – Borussia Dortmund 0 – 2 Bayern Munich

The DFB-Pokal (German Cup) final took place at Dortmund’s home stadium, providing an additional advantage to the team that won 3-0 at Bayern just weeks previously (albeit when they had already won the title). Dortmund’s Mats Hummels was denied a first half goal by a lack of goal-line technology, and that despite fifteen efforts on goal in total the club were unable to put the ball past Neuer again, with Bayern winning the trophy for the seventeenth time.

Manuel Neuer’s Key Champions League Fixtures In 2014:

April 23 2014 – Real Madrid 1-0 Bayern Munich

The first leg of last season’s semi-final saw Karim Benzema give Real Madrid an early lead, and from then on the match largely consisted of Bayern keeping possession – Real had just 28% over the ninety minutes – and trying to grab an equaliser. Despite eighteen shots in the match, Bayern were unable to get a vital away goal, and were it not for Neuer’s second half stops from Cristiano Ronaldo, the scoreline could have been worse for them.

April 29 2014 – Bayern Munich 0-4 Real Madrid

The second leg was a horror show for Bayern, who would have fancied their chances of overturning the aggregate score before the match. Sergio Ramos scored two headers from set pieces inside the opening twenty minutes, and with Bayern forced to hurry numbers forward they were picked off on the counter attack to effectively kill the tie off by half time. Neuer punched the ground after Ronaldo’s shot went past him, as he felt he could have got more onto it, although he was perhaps being harsh on himself. He could have no complaints about Ronaldo’s late free kick, though, with the keeper unsighted as the effort went under the Bayern wall into the net. Despite the scoreline, those four goals were the visitors’ only shots on target, and it was the failings of the defence in the first half rather than the goalkeeper that cost Bayern the match.

Manuel Neuer’s Key International Fixtures In 2014:

July 8 2014 – Brazil 1 – 7 Germany

The most sensational result in World Cup and likely international football history wasn’t a particularly tense match for Neuer, whose Germany side went 5-0 up inside half an hour. He did still, though, deny Brazil on several occasions and helped to evaporate any hope of the host nation. Brazil did get an injury time consolation, when Neuer (for once) hesitated to come out and Oscar capitalized, although this cannot be attributed to an inability to handle big game pressure. If anything, the error was a result of him being too relaxed, and Neuer’s incensed reaction at conceding suggested he knew it was his fault.

July 13 2014 – Germany 1 – 0 Argentina (aet)

The World Cup Final was a cagey affair, and Argentina failed to register a shot on target in the entire match. The likes of Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi shot efforts wide, but Neuer was at his best when Rodrigo Palacio was clear. With the substitute controlling the bouncing ball, Neuer came storming out to force an attempted lob by Palacio, and with the keeper so close the attempt went around him and wide of the goal. It was the closest the South American side came to scoring, and Germany took advantage in extra time to win.

Lionel-Messi

Three time Ballon D’or winner and living phenom Lionel Messi did not relent in 2014, with 52 appearances in the calendar year for his Catalan club, the Argentinian maestro has found the net an impressive 50 times, providing a fantastic 19 assists to his star studded team-mates as well. Lionel also enjoyed a fantastic summer as he guided his native Argentina to the World Cup final only to lose out to eventual winners Germany. Messi remained at the top of his game in 2014 and was a constant threat in La Liga, Champions League and International football throughout the year. Messi’s run of three consecutive Ballon d’Or wins was disrupted last year when Cristiano Ronaldo took the coveted gong home but this year’s awards will see Little Leo gunning for his best player alive crown. We’ve broken down Messi’s key performances in 2014 for both his beloved Barcelona as well as his native Argentina.

Lionel Messi’s Key League Fixtures In 2014:

January 1 2014 – Atletico Madrid 0 – 0 Barcelona

A tough, hard fought battle between the top two of La Liga at the time saw a goalless stalemate in which Lionel Messi was unable to capitalise and find the net in what turned out to be a key game in Atletico Madrid’s title winning campaign.

March 23 2014 – Barcelona 4 – 3 Real Madrid

One of the more action packed and exciting El Clasico ties in recent years saw a 4-3 win for Lionel Messi’s Barcelona in which the Argentinian scored a historic hat-trick after his side had been penned back 2-1 by Madrid.

May 17 2014 – Barcelona 1 – 1 Atletico Madrid

In a game Lionel Messi and Barcelona fans alike would sooner forget, Atletico Madrid earned a 1-1 draw through a Godin equaliser to secure a historic La Liga title victory, their first since 1996.

October 25 2014 – Real Madrid 3 – 1 Barcelona

In what was a heavily publicised El Clasico tie, due to Luis Suraez’s inclusion for the first time in a Barcelona strip, the game was something of an anti-climax for Messi’s team as they were convincingly beaten 3-1 after taking a very early lead through Neymar.

Manuel Neuer’s Key European Fixtures In 2014:

February 18 2014 – Manchester City 0 – 2 Barcelona

The first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League saw Barcelona draw English giants Manchester City. Many expected a hard fought tie between two European juggernauts, Messi and co had other ideas. Netting from the spot, Messi was electric on the night with his side running out 2-0 winners thanks to the man himself and Dani Alves’ 90th minute finish.

March 12 2014 – Barcelona 2 – 1 Manchester City

The return leg for this last 16 tie saw Barcelona end Manchester City’s European ambitions in a bizarrely familiar way. Lionel Messi was on hand to score for Barcelona and oddly Dani Alves was too, in identical fashion to the first leg.

April 1 2014 – Barcelona 1 – 1 Atletico Madrid

This all La Liga Champions League tie had the world of football salivating with potential. Unfortunately the tight fixture was somewhat of a disappointment for all involved as neither side succeeded in taking the initiative, with a 1-1 draw played out thanks to goals from Neymar and Diego Costga respectively.

April 9 2014 – Atletico Madrid 1 – 0 Barcelona

The second leg of the tight Champions League draw saw Barcelona lose out to Atletico Madrid in a tight and tense game that saw both sides limited to few shots and few clear cut chances. Koke netted the winning goal for Madrid whilst Messi tried in vein to save the tie for Barcelona.

Lionel Messi’s Key International Fixtures In 2014:

July 5 2014 – Argentina 1 – 0 Belgium

The ‘Dark Horse’ of the 2014 World Cup, Belgium, stood in Lionel Messi and Argentina’s way as they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup this summer and thanks to a great display from the Argentinians and an invaluable goal from Gonzalo Higuain, Messi and his native side progressed to the semi finals to face Holland.

July 9 2014 – Netherlands 0 – 0 Argentina (2-4 on pens)

This semi-final tie set up a huge fixture between two of world football’s best international sides. A tight game that saw few chances also saw Messi fail to touch the ball in the Dutch goal for a staggering 120 minutes. Messi did however convert his penalty in the shoot-out and helped his side claim a priceless win.

July 13 2014 – Germany 1 – 0 Argentina

Thanks in a huge part to Lionel Messi’s fantastic competition, Argentina reached the World Cup final with only Germany standing in their way. The final saw Germany take the lion’s share of possession and limit Argentina to only off target shots, with their best chance falling to the feet of Messi only for him to drag his shot agonisingly wide. It took until extra time for Germany to claim victory, a huge blow for the Argentinians who had gone the whole tournament, only trailing for a total of seven minutes throughout the competition. Messi was the key instrument in Argentina’s run to the final and was deserving of his Player of the tournament victory for the summer competition.

The Verdict:

If the Ballon d’Or was decided by the impact the nominees had in their biggest matches last year, then it’s once again a straight fight between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both had a similar record goal-wise, and interestingly excelled in different areas. Ronaldo’s incredible strike rate in the big Champions League matches was a significant factor in Real Madrid winning the competition, while Messi’s performances at the World Cup almost carried his country all the way to glory. If we are to choose one, though, we’ll have to give Cristiano Ronaldo the nod. His goals in the key La Liga matches together with his prolific European form more than made up for his lack of impact at international level, something he couldn’t necessarily help in the worst Portuguese team for generations. There are of course many other factors that will have been considered in the Ballon d’Or voting, so we’ll see whether Ronaldo’s big-game form will be enough to win him the trophy.

Words by Ben Fawcett and Joe Walker