Mohamed Salah has been in a league of his own in 2021.
The Egyptian has 17 goals and seven assists from just 18 matches so far this season for Liverpool, and is the leading scorer in the Premier League and third-highest scorer in the Champions League.
Fifteen goals and two assists from 28 outings in the second half of last season, plus two goals and three assists from seven appearances for Egypt, might not be quite as spectacular, but make no mistake, Salah is in the form of his life.
Yet when the winner of the Ballon d’Or was crowned in Paris on Monday night, it would have been something of a surprise if the 29-year-old found himself taking home football's top individual prize.
He might be the standout player in world football in the formative weeks of 2021/22, and 34 goals and 12 assists from 53 appearances for club and country in 2021 are totals few and only the very best can rival.
But any hopes Salah would have had of winning the Ballon d’Or were effectively ended when Liverpool lost all their senior centre-backs to injury come the end of January.
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It might have been admirable how the Reds fought back to qualify for the top four last season, and they might very much be in a Premier League title race this, but the Egyptian King didn’t have what he needed to make 2021 his year as he was voted the seventh best player in the world.
No trophies for club or country and no Golden Boot, in a year which has lacked a standout spectacular individual, it is understandable why Salah's exploits fell short.
That’s why it was seemingly easy to see Lionel Messi win the award for the seventh, and what could be last, time.
The Argentine might only have had the Copa del Rey to show for his final season at Barcelona, but his 30 La Liga goals were enough to clinch the Pichichi Trophy in a year where the Catalans struggled to third in the table.
And while Messi might not have hit the ground running at PSG, scoring just once in Ligue 1 so far, he did at least end his international silverware drought by captaining Argentina to the Copa America.
It's hardly runner-up Robert Lewandowski's 55 goals in 2019/20, as Bayern Munich won the treble, which should have been enough to win the Ballon d’Or last year had it not been cancelled, but it’s better than nothing.
It appears the Pole has to reach such heights again to stand a chance.
‘Just’ the 48 goals for Lewandowski last season, along with three at Euro 2020 and eight in 2022 World Cup qualification.
However, Bayern ‘only’ defended the Bundesliga title as they fell short in the Champions League and DFB-Pokal, while Poland exited the Euros at the group-stages and had to make do with a place in the World Cup play-offs.
A look at the other contenders, and Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe might have finished as leading goalscorers in Italy and France, but between them no league titles in 2021, no Champions League glory and no Euro 2020 victory either.
Considering Juventus' and PSG’s dominance in Serie A and Ligue 1 in recent years, such failure was indeed a shock.
But Ronaldo won the Coppa Italia, helped Juventus scrape a top-four finish and is still boasting respectable returns in a dismal Manchester United side, with such efforts seeing him finish sixth ahead of Salah.
Meanwhile, ninth-placed Mbappe won the Coupe de France and has led PSG back to the top of a dismal league so far this season.
Twelve points clear of Rennes already, after bringing in Messi and Gianluigi Donnarumma - who was voted 10th in the Ballon d'Or standings after winning Euro 2020 despite a trophyless season for AC Milan and not being first-choice for his new club - as well as Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi and Gini Wijnaldum, it really is a victory for the 'little' guy over in France.
But at least Mbappe won the Nations League for France alongside Karim Benzema - another one of the leading contenders who finished fourth and returned a respectable goals tally despite a poor, trophyless campaign for Real Madrid.
This must be why Jorginho was also a leading contender after winning both the Champions League and Euro 2020, with it seemingly not mattering that he was neither the best player for Chelsea or Italy, as he finished third.
Such honours earned him the UEFA Men's Player of the Year Award for 2020/21 after all, but curiously not the Midfielder of the Year award, which went to his team-mate, the fifth-placed N'Golo Kante.
Was the UEFA Nations League triumph, alongside his Champions League win, not meaningful enough to boost the Frenchman's chances? Or perhaps Kante just doesn’t score enough goals, being a defensive midfielder and all.
The absence of a genuine contender from Manchester City, despite winning the Premier League and reaching the Champions League final, is also telling, with Kevin De Bruyne almost overlooked in eighth, highlighting how 2021, taking place behind closed doors for the majority, really did not produce a runaway winner.
When in doubt, revert to what we know. Name the world’s best the world’s best. Step forward, Messi.
So there we have the flawed system that is the elite football awards, with our expectations inevitably skewered by the Messi/Ronaldo back-and-forth over the past 13 years, creating a vacuum as their excellence suddenly no longer quite lives up to what it once was.
It is rare for a player to win the Ballon d’Or in a year where they haven’t won their domestic league or the Champions League but this year Messi has done exactly that.
Since Michael Owen achieved such a feat in 2001, having won a treble with Liverpool, only four players have done the same.
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Yet considering one is the 'original' Ronaldo in 2002, and another is Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, who both starred in World Cup wins for Brazil and Italy in those respective years, while the latter also saw Juventus stripped of the Serie A title that season, it’s hardly the same.
Before the Messi/Ronaldo monopoly, Pavel Nedved, Andriy Shevchenko, Ronaldinho and Kaka would all end the year as domestic or European champions when lifting the Ballon d’Or, with Luka Modric doing the same in 2018, while the legendary Argentine and Portuguese would bring in an era where often the successful player could win all three.
It is perhaps curious that 2012 and 2013 are the only other years when a Ballon d’Or was not accompanied by domestic or European titles, instead going to Messi and then Ronaldo after extraordinary goalscoring years at the height of their powers when the other had actually won La Liga in the respective years.
With Ronaldo 37 and Messi 35 when the next Ballon d’Or ceremony takes place, it becomes clear that 2021 could be the final year in which their duopoly sits atop global football.
But this is where what cost Salah any chance of glory in 2021 could open the door for him to making history in 2022, and becoming the first African to win the Ballon d’Or since George Weah since 1995.
The New Year will give the forward the opportunity to compete for continental glory early on in the Africa Cup of Nations, while he could fire Egypt to the 2022 World Cup.
When the next Ballon d'Or ceremony takes place, it is likely to either be early ahead of the World Cup or delayed until after its conclusion in Qatar, granting the challengers perhaps the biggest stage to stake their final claim.
And that’s without taking into consideration that Salah is comfortably leading the Premier League scoring charts and not far behind in the Champions League equivalent after blitzing through to the knockout stages with Liverpool.
Very much in Premier League title contention this year also, he could equally have one eye on a potential maiden Wembley final appearance in the League Cup following his winter return from the Africa Cup of Nations.
Salah’s goals won’t dry up, they never have since he left Chelsea for Serie A in 2015, and at Anfield he is starting to return figures to rival Messi and Ronaldo at their very peak.
Last season when speaking to Spanish media about his future, which still remains up in the air heading into 2022, his message was clear. He wants to keep scoring goals and breaking records to help his side win trophies.
“I'm focused on winning the Premier League and the Champions League again with my club,” he told AS back in December when asked about links regarding a move to La Liga.
“That's a tough one, but right now I can say that everything is in the club's hands,” he then replied when asked how long he would stay at Liverpool. “Of course I want to break records here and, I repeat, every record in the club, but everything's in the hands of the club.”
And it was a similar story last March when he conducted an interview with Marca.
“I hope to be doing the same thing that I've been doing in recent years,” he said when asked about his future ambitions. “Winning trophies, scoring goals, helping my team win trophies... That's the most important thing for me.”
With so many platforms open to him in 2022, the stage is there for him to achieve exactly that.
Salah has been in a league of his own in 2021 in a year that has been ultimately an underwhelming failure on some levels for so many of the planet's leading stars.
But he’ll have to do more than that to breakaway from the ordinary and unspectacular to make 2022 his year and the Ballon d’Or his own.