We may have witnessed a changing of the guard in world football this week.
Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe both produced match-winning performances for Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi both struggled during Champions League defeats for Juventus and Barcelona.
Ronaldo celebrated his 36th birthday earlier this month while Messi turns 34 in June. Sadly, the two superstars are now coming to the end of their extraordinary careers.
Haaland is a sensational goalscorer at the tender age of 20, while 22-year-old Mbappe, already a World Cup winner with France, showed just how special he is against Barcelona in midweek.
His hat-trick at Camp Nou will live long in the memory.
But are the youngsters destined to follow in the footsteps of Messi and Ronaldo by winning a Ballon d’Or?
We’ve listed some of the world’s best players aged 23 and under and ranked them by how likely they are to win football’s most prestigious individual accolade.
Let’s take a closer look…
Needs a miracle
The idea of Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold winning a Ballon d’Or wouldn’t have sounded so fanciful 12 months ago, but the right-back has struggled at times this season. He’s still only 22 but considering how rare it is for a defender to win the Ballon d’Or, it’s hard to envisage him ever landing his hands on the award right now.
The same can be said of Barcelona’s Sergino Dest, while Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr needs to become far more consistent in order to fulfil his huge potential.
Barça Rique Puig and Real Madrid’s Takefusa Kubo, on loan at Getafe, are both talented but probably need to be playing week-in, week-out for their parent clubs in order to be viewed as potential Ballon d’Or winners.
Possibly – but too early to tell
These lads are all very highly-rated, and for good reason, but we still need to see more before we can properly judge whether they’re potential Ballon d’Or winners.
Football Talent Scout rated Lyon’s Rayan Cherki as the world’s top teenager last year, ahead of Rennes midfielder Eduardo Camavinga and Manchester United forward Mason Greenwood.
Never say never
Matthijs de Ligt
Most of these players have been on the scene for a while now but certainly have the ability to challenge for the Ballon d’Or in the future if – and it’s a big if – they fulfil their potential.
Marcus Rashford is 23 now but you sense the Man United star can improve a lot more over the next few seasons, while 21-year-old playmaker Kai Havertz is yet to shine in a Chelsea shirt but has bags of ability.
Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka has the potential to become a truly top-class player, as does his current teammate Martin Odegaard, who is on loan at the Emirates Stadium from Real Madrid.
Frenkie de Jong
Man City midfielder Phil Foden is one of the most gifted English footballers in years. Will he become the first Englishman to win the Ballon d’Or since Michael Owen in 2001? Or will it be Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho?
Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies has enjoyed a remarkable 12 months but it’s important to note that even his legendary fellow left-back Roberto Carlos didn’t win the Ballon d’Or at his peak (although he came second behind Ronaldo in 2002).
Barcelona’s 18-year-old midfielder Pedri is certainly one to keep a close eye on, as is his teammate Ansu Fati.
Haaland and Mbappe have taken all the plaudits this week, but don’t sleep on Atletico Madrid forward Joao Felix.
The 21-year-old struggled at times during his first season with Atleti following his big-money move from Benfica but has been excellent this term.
Felix is on course to become Ronaldo’s successor with the Portuguese national team and will certainly challenge Haaland and Mbappe for the Ballon d’Or over the coming seasons if he continues to improve.
It would be a shock if Mbappe doesn’t end his career with at least one Ballon d’Or award.
Sure, we would have said the same about Neymar seven or eight years ago, but Mbappe will hit his peak once Messi and Ronaldo have retired.
The Frenchman proved this week that it’s almost inevitable he’ll win the Ballon d’Or one day. In fact, it might even happen this year.
And here are all 41 players in their respective tiers…
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