The Champions League final barely needs secondary storylines but this year, between Liverpool and Real Madrid, there are a whole host of underlying plots. Can Real Madrid become 14 time champions in Paris having missed out on Kylian Mbappe? Will Liverpool bounce back from their quadruple disappointment to become kings of Europe again?
But, there’s also another issue that will be resolved this weekend. The 2021/22 Ballon d’Or winner.
For the first time in the award’s history, it will be given out for a player’s season rather than a calendar year. The shortlist will be done by August and the winner announced in October, but any football played after this Champions League final will not count towards the award. That means the World Cup will decide next season’s award, rather than contribute towards the 2022 edition.
With such great stars on show competing for the greatest prize in club football, whoever comes out on top on Saturday night will dramatically boost their chances of winning the Ballon d’Or. One thing is for sure, it is likely that the winner will be crowned the world’s best player for the very first time, with Luka Modric the only previous winner on either side.
But despite Modric’s ability, if Real Madrid win the final the award can only go to one man. Karim Benzema. He’s bagged a simply staggering 15 goals in this year’s Champions League, including dramatic hat-tricks against PSG and Chelsea, and Madrid would not be in this final without him.
He has been the best number nine in the world this year, with 27 goals and 12 assists in La Liga carrying Los Blancos to the title. The Frenchman has flourished since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and has clearly thrived on being the go-to man in the Spanish capital, so perhaps Florentino Perez missing out on Kylian Mbappe isn’t such a bad thing after all.
The Frenchman would be a worthy winner of the award if he wins the league and Champions League double this season, and the league title is something that could play into his advantage against his Liverpool rivals. Despite their brilliance in the league, they once again missed out on the final day to an domestically imperious Manchester City side. Only an inexplicable collapse in Madrid prevented the two English sides from meeting in the final in Paris.
But what Liverpool’s dynamic duo Mo Salah and Sadio Mane lack in league titles they make up for in cup wins. The Reds scooped both the League Cup and FA Cup on penalties this term, which puts Salah and Mane in a great position if they were to also win the Champions League this weekend.
However, the deciding factor to separate these two teammates could well be another penalty shootout. At the AFCON in January, Mane hit the winning penalty in the final against Salah’s Egypt to crown Senegal champions of the continent for the very first time. International tournaments rightly hold huge weight when it comes to individual awards and although Salah may have won the Premier League Golden Boot, he didn’t win anything with his country.
The odds ahead of the final currently have Karim Benzema as clear favourite, with Salah and Mane trailing behind. But with the award now being given out on a seasonal basis, surely a Champions League win can change all of that.
If Mane scores a hat-trick in Paris to win his fourth final of the season, he will have done everything he possibly can to secure the individual award. With those trophies to his name, it makes sense that the Ballon d’Or will become a real possibility later this year.
But Benzema is in control as things stand and if Real Madrid secure their 14th Champions League title the award will surely be his.