The shortlist of candidates for the FIFA World Footballer of the Year is out. Karthik Krishnaswamy profiles the top contenders.
Thanks to Barcelona winning the treble (La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League) last season, the list of nominees for the FIFA World Player of the Year award is dominated by Pep Guardiola's path-breaking team - of the 23 short- listed candidates, six were involved in Barcelona's historic 2008-09 campaign.
Lionel Messi: At 22, Lionel Messi is the youngest on the WPOTY shortlist, and the odds-on favourite to win the award, after a season that saw him score 38 goals, playing primarily on the right side of a three-pronged forward line. Not only did he constantly pop up to score, he also set up chance after chance for his team-mates, notching up 18 assists. Above all though, what sets him apart from every other footballer in the world is the visceral appeal of his playing style, characterised by his tiny frame skipping effortlessly past teams of brawny he-men like Gulliver in Brobdingnag.
David Villa: Is there a better striker in the world than David Villa? Commentators might swoon over how Fernando Torres can create a goal out of nothing, about how devastatingly Didier Drogba combines pace and power, or how silken Zlatan Ibrahimovic's touch is, but none of them, or for that matter Samuel Eto'o or Diego Forlan or Alexandre Pato, are as prolific as the diminutive Valencia front man. Where Torres, his strike partner in the Spanish national side, catches the eye with his explosive style, Villa is subtler, almost slippery, his positioning and off-the-ball movement giving him a yard of space to exploit with his close control, technique and finishing.
Playing for a team that in recent seasons hasn't figured in any realistic title fights, Villa has scored goals at a quite phenomenal rate. Since the start of the 2007-08 season, the 27-year-old has knocked in 64 in 95 games for Valencia, or a goal every 1.48 games - more often than all the other names mentioned above. Meanwhile, in international competition, Villa is closing in rapidly on Raul Gonzalez's goalscoring record for Spain. While Raul scored 44 international goals in 102 appearances, Villa already has 35, in just 54 matches.
Cristiano Ronaldo:The only player who has a better goals-to-games ratio than Villa over the last two and a half seasons is, in a bizarre twist of football logic, primarily a winger. Last season, Cristiano Ronaldo might not have hit the heights of 2007-08, but then, is it even humanly possible to score over 40 goals in successive seasons? While his Premier League career didn't have the fairytale finish it deserved, thanks to that drubbing at Rome, it was his goals against Porto and Arsenal that drove Manchester United to the Champions League final. Since his move away from Old Trafford, he's silenced anyone who's doubted his capacity to thrive in La Liga's more technical environment, with eleven times in his nine league, cup and European appearances so far for Real Madrid.
Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta: Like Hobbs and Sutcliffe, or Woodforde and Woodbridge, the names Xavi and Iniesta were fated to forever occur in the same sentences. Playing in front of Yaya Toure (criminally ignored as all defensive midfielders are in the WPOTY shortlist), these two tiny technicians kept Barcelona's 'passing carousel' (as Sir Alex Ferguson memorably put it) moving throughout the season, mesmerising opponents with the patterns they traced with the ball. As important to Barcelona's style of play as their passing is their willingness to constantly press their midfield opponents high up the pitch, and deny them space and time.
Blessed with equally exquisite feet, the two are similarly gifted at threading the eye-of-the-needle pass, but operate in slightly different ways. The deeper-lying Xavi is the metronome, a man who receives the ball and gives it to a teammate and repeats the process on and on till the final whistle, more often than not ending up as the player with the most passes in a game, and always the one with the highest percentage of successful passes.
Iniesta is more willing to take opponents on, using his low centre of gravity and achingly perfect technique to dribble past defenders. This makes him a more versatile player than Xavi, and sees him deployed occasionally on the wing.