Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi arguably remain the world's two best players. Reuters

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will go head to head for the FIFA Ballon d’Or award once more, along with the first goalkeeper to make the shortlist in 12 years, Manuel Neuer. The trio was announced as the final contenders for the prestigious prize on Monday, with a winner to be announced on Jan. 15, 2015, based on votes from coaches and captains of all 209 FIFA member countries and journalists from around the world.

The first two names on the shortlist have been staggeringly consistent features of FIFA’s annual awards gala. Messi and Ronaldo have been named in the top two for five of the past six seasons, with Messi winning four in a row between 2009 and 2012, but Ronaldo coming out on top in 2008 and last year. In 2014 both have continued to show the form that has made them the greatest players of this generation. Meanwhile, Neuer becomes the first goalkeeper since compatriot Oliver Kahn to be shortlisted after helping Germany to lift the 2014 World Cup.

Below is a closer look at the three candidates.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid, Portugal)

Ronaldo wept on stage after finally moving out of Messi’s considerable shadow to reclaim the Ballon d’Or for 2013, and at 29 years old, he has incredibly continued to improve this year. The former Manchester United star has scored a ridiculous 50 goals in 46 appearances for Real Madrid so far in 2014, bettering his strike rate even of last year. His 18 assists also reflect that he has grown into more of a team player. Madrid have benefited hugely from their star man’s efforts and ended a 12-yearwait for the Champions League title when Ronaldo scored a penalty to secure a 4-1 extra-time victory over Atletico Madrid in Lisbon. The only disappointment has again been at the international level, with Ronaldo visibly short of fitness and unable to prevent Portugal crashing out of the World Cup at the group stage.

Lionel Messi (Barcelona, Argentina)
It has been a year of disappointment for Messi. Barcelona failed to win a major trophy for the first time since 2008, and his dream of matching the man to which he will always be compared, Diego Maradona, by leading Argentina to World Cup glory was agonizingly halted in a final defeat to Germany in Brazil. Following on from his dip in performances after a series of fitness issues last year, Messi has arguably again not reached the heights of his prime in 2014. Yet that still says much more about just how brilliant he was at his best than his current level. Messi has scored a far-from-shabby 44 goals in 48 appearances for Barcelona in 2014 and scored four times to propel Argentina through the tricky early rounds of the World Cup. He continues to rack up the goals, despite this season seeing a clear shift toward being more of a creator than a finisher. In a further illustration of his undeniable legacy, in the past 10 days Messi has become the all-time top scorer in the Spanish League and Champions League -- both of which were fittingly secured with hat tricks.

Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich, Germany)
While a member of Germany’s victorious World Cup squad was always likely to be shortlisted, it takes something special for a goalkeeper to earn such recognition. In reinventing his position, Neuer has certainly produced just that. It is worth remembering that Germany’s path to glory was not always serene and Neuer was critical in bailing out an unconvincing defense in the early stages of the tournament, particularly in a last-16 win over Algeria. Germany could only get away with playing such a risky, high defensive line, because their 28-year-old goalkeeper was so adept at racing from his goal to intercept danger. More than just a shot-stopper and cross-handler (two fundamental skills at which he also excels), Neuer’s anticipation and ability with his feet effectively gives both Bayern Munich (for which he won both the Bundesliga and Germany Cup in 2014) and Germany an extra outfield player.

Verdict: Both Messi and Neuer have outstanding cases to win the award, but we are living in outstanding times for soccer. While there is a particular pull to honor Neuer’s revolutionary contribution as well a member of the victorious team from the year’s biggest competition, it would be a surprise were Ronaldo’s name not to be read out for a second straight year. And it would be hard to argue were that the case. The World Cup aside, Ronaldo has been almost unstoppable this year and the sport’s most devastatingly effective force.