Lionel Messi, Neymar
Lionel Messi will be joined on the Ballon d'Or podium for the first time by his Barcelona teammate Neymar. Getty Images

For the past seven years the Ballon d’Or has been a closed shop, dominated by the two outstanding players of their generation -- Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. And it is highly unlikely that the changing of the guard will arrive when the 2015 award for the world’s best player is handed out in Zurich on Monday.

Messi is the overwhelming favorite to be handed the honor for a record fifth time, after a year in which he scored 48 goals and contributed 23 assists to help Barcelona win La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League, European Super Cup and the Club World Cup. The 28-year-old also led Argentina to the final of the Copa del Rey with his only disappointment coming in a final defeat to Chile on a penalty shootout. But 2015 was very much a year when Messi returned to his best, playing the role of both playmaker and goalscorer as Barcelona became the first club to complete a treble for a second time.

For the past two years, after a slight dip in his own performances, Messi has had to watch on as Ronaldo collected the Ballon d’Or. Now, though, for the first time since 2010, there is a very real chance that Messi will not be joined in the top two by the man who has long been his chief rival for individual honors.

Ronaldo has statistically still had an extraordinary year, firing 57 goals in 57 games for Real Madrid and Portugal. Yet his influence over games has been on the wane, quite possibly a consequence of the fact that he will turn 31 next month. He has also appeared distracted by the changes in management at Real Madrid and rumors over a summer move to Paris Saint-Germain.

Meanwhile, Messi’s teammate Neymar has emerged as a true superstar, fully fulfilling his enormous talent at Barcelona. Combining his individual talent with superb interplay as part of a devastating forward trio also including Luis Suárez, the Brazilian impressively came up with the goods on the biggest occasions.

The former Santos man scored one in the Champions League final, three in the semifinals, as well as finding the net in the final of the Copa del Rey. He stepped up, too, when Messi was ruled out for two months late in the year, taking over the responsibility as the team’s attacking focal point.

While winning the top award may prove beyond him this time, he appears to be at the head of the queue to take the mantle when Messi and Ronaldo finally step aside. For the time being, Messi is the man to beat. That verdict is shared by former teammate Thierry Henry, who also believes the podium should have an even greater Barcelona flavor to it.

“I think it would be madness if [Messi] doesn’t win the Ballon d’Or,” he told Barcelona’s official website. “He deserves it because the team won another treble. But what I don’t understand is why Suárez isn’t there.”

Date: Monday, Jan. 11

Predictions: 1. Lionel Messi, 2. Neymar, 3. Cristiano Ronaldo

Betting odds (via Oddschecker)
Lionel Messi: 1/20
Neymar: 12/1
Cristiano Ronaldo: 20/1