There is no surprise that the final three-man shortlist for this year’s Ballon d’Or features three forwards. The year has featured some phenomenal scoring feats in a game increasingly centered on attacking expression, rather than rugged defending.
Below are the 10 forwards to have performed best in 2015.
1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona, Argentina)
There can be little doubt that Messi has been not only the best forward in the world over the past 12 months, but the best player, period. After failing to quite meet his own unprecedentedly high standards over the previous two years, the four-time Ballon d’Or winner has been back to his very best in 2015. Reverting to a more withdrawn right-sided role, Messi has taken greater playmaking responsibility, while also continuing to score at a phenomenal rate, firing 44 goals in 48 appearances.
2. Neymar (Barcelona, Brazil)
Known as a player of huge talent since his very formative days at Santos, 2015 was the year that the Brazilian became a true global superstar. Still showing brilliant individual ability, he has impeccably adapted to the team-first ethos at Barcelona. And, while happy to play sidekick to Messi, Neymar stepped up to produce his best performances during his illustrious teammate’s recent injury absence. Goals in the Champions League final and Copa del Rey final to help Barcelona to a treble mean he has also been a man for the big occasion.
3. Luis Suárez (Barcelona, Uruguay)
What he has brought to Barcelona over the past 12 months means Suárez was unlucky to miss out on making it an all-Barcelona lineup in the final three for the Ballon d’Or. It is easy to think now that simply combining three of the world’s great forwards into one team would produce sensational results, but it is far from being that straightforward. And the fact that it has worked so well has been down in no small part to Suárez’s willingness to work incredibly hard and to sacrifice himself for the team. His relentless running in behind defenses has opened up space that has allowed Messi and Neymar to thrive.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid, Portugal)
In terms of statistics, it has been another sensational year for the Ballon d’Or winner of the last two years. Scoring 45 goals in 47 appearances for Real Madrid as well as helping Portugal to Euro 2016 means there has been plenty of success. Yet for his club there has also been notable disappointment. Real Madrid failed to win any silverware last season and this campaign has started poorly both for the Spanish giants and Ronaldo, with his need to be center of attention combining with perhaps the first signs of decline in the 30-year-old.
5. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)
His first season at Bayern Munich was hardly a disaster for the former Borussia Dortmund front man, netting 25 goals in all competitions. But, now fully adapted to Pep Guardiola’s side, he has stepped up to another level entirely this campaign, and is right now the best out-and-out striker on the planet. At the start of December, Lewandowski already has 20 goals for his club as well as eight in helping Poland qualify for Euro 2016. The highlight, of course, was his record-breaking five goals in nine minutes against Wolfsburg in September.
6. Sergio Agüero (Manchester City, Argentina)
If he could finally shake off the niggling muscular injuries that continue to hamper him, there is no question that Agüero would be even higher on this list and truly mixing it with the very best players in the world. As it is, he has still produced plenty to admire. Incredibly quick in and around the box, as well as barrel-chested, the Argentine is extremely hard to dispossess when he is in full flight. He has a phenomenal instinct for finding the back of the net, too, scoring at close to a goal a game for Manchester City.
7. Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich, Germany)
While Lewandowski has understandably grabbed the headlines at Bayern Munich this season, the performances of Müller have been almost as exceptional. Blessed with an incredible footballing brain and an ability to so often be in the right place at the right time, “the interpreter of space,” as he has aptly described himself, has already matched his previous best goal tally in the Bundesliga of 13. He may be some way from being the most technically gifted player in the world, but there is an argument that he is the most effective, and certainly most efficient.
8. Alexis Sánchez (Arsenal, Chile)
It has been an incredible 12 months for the 26-year-old. As well as being the key player for Arsenal and lifting the FA Cup, Sánchez helped Chile to win their first ever international title at this summer’s Copa America. While he has become a lethal goal-scorer cutting in from out wide, it is Sánchez’s incredible hunger and work rate that is so important in setting the tone for both Arsenal and Chile. Given that intensity and the fact that he is relied on so heavily by both club and country, it is a testament to his incredible fitness that he has not broken down before his injury this past weekend.
9. Gareth Bale (Real Madrid, Wales)
It has not been the best of years at Real Madrid for a player who continues to be judged by the tag of the most expensive player in history. Yet he has not been as bad as some have portrayed, and he is not helped by the seemingly untenable situation at Real Madrid, where he will always struggle to thrive alongside the similarly individualistic abilities of Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet just how good he can still be in the right setting has been shown in his performances for his country. The former Tottenham forward netted seven goals in 10 qualifiers and was the undoubted driving force behind Wales reaching their first major tournament in 58 years.
10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris Saint-Germain, Sweden)
At the age of 34, the Swedish great’s best days may now be behind him. But his ability is such that there remains plenty to enjoy. After helping PSG to a third successive Ligue Un title last season, he has begun this campaign with 10 goals in 11 matches. And his record for his country has been even more impressive. A title winner at six different clubs, Ibrahimovic scored 11 goals for Sweden to help them to Euro 2016 and guarantee one last hurrah on a big international stage.