Pogba verdict on the race for the Ballon d'Or

It's been an award dominated by two very familiar names for over a decade, but this year's Ballon d'Or has the potential to be a much more competitive affair.

Far from being a straight shootout between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have won 12 of the last 13 editions, several stars across Europe have a legitimate case for being a contender at the halfway point of the year.

Paul Pogba has already made it clear who he thinks should win. The Frenchman has talked up the chances of his international team-mate N'Golo Kante, who enjoyed a stellar season for Chelsea culminating in Champions League glory.

‘What I would like to say to the whole world is that the “NG” we have seen in recent months has always been the same,' Pogba told Eurosport France’s FC Stream Team podcast.

‘We talk a lot about his performances but he has always been as good as ever.

‘There was no Cristiano and Messi in the semi-final, so it’s good to see the performances of the midfielders or even the defenders.

‘I said a long time ago that it would be appropriate, if Chelsea won (the Champions League), for him to win the Ballon d’Or. It would be deserved, too.’

With a huge summer of international football ahead, Sportsmail takes a look at the players who could rival Kante to win the Ballon d'Or when it is decided in December later this year.

Kylian Mbappe

PSG & France; Current odds 9/4
It seems almost inevitable that Kylian Mbappe will one day be a Ballon d'Or winner, and it could very well materialise this year with the French star the current favourite for the award.

A disappointing season for Paris Saint-Germain meant they failed to secure the Ligue 1 title and lost in the semi-finals of the Champions League, but on an individual level Mbappe was in imperious form.

A hat-trick at the Nou Camp was followed in the next round by a brace in Germany against Bayern, before injury kept him out of the away leg against Manchester City in a huge blow for his team.

The 22-year-old scored 42 goals in 47 appearances across all competitions and once again finished as the division's top scorer.

The lack of trophies this year may count against Mbappe, but he is more than capable of firing France to glory at Euro 2020 this summer, and in doing so give himself a chance to become the first Frenchman to win the Ballon d'Or since Zinedine Zidane in 1998.

Robert Lewandowski

Bayern Munich & Germany; Current odds 9/2

The European Golden Shoe, a Bundesliga goalscoring record, and yet more trophies. On raw numbers, Robert Lewandowski is entitled to see himself as the frontrunner for this year's Ballon d'Or.

His injury-time goal against Augsburg on the last day of the season took his Bundesliga tally for the season to 41, breaking the record set by Gerd Muller in the 1971/72 campaign.

An injury kept him out as Bayern Munich exited the Champions League at the hands of PSG, with a first-leg defeat seeing the German side take 31 shots and making it clear just how much they missed the clinical finishing of their main man.

Had last year's Ballon d'Or not been cancelled Lewandowski would surely have gone close, top-scoring to lead Bayern to the Champions League trophy.

Should he keep up his goalscoring form in the early months of next season, and help Poland to a surprise run in the Euros, the striker could well be on his way to making up for lost time.

Lionel Messi

Barcelona & Argentina; Current odds 7/1

Lionel Messi has been awarded the Ballon d'Or six times, and has finished inside the top three of the voting on 12 occasions in all.

It says a lot about the standards he has set that a tally of 38 goals last season was somewhat underwhelming, and just the second time since 2009 has has failed to notch 40 in a campaign.

Barcelona struggled for long periods under Ronald Koeman, finishing third in La Liga but they did pick up the Copa del Rey trophy with Messi scoring twice in the final.

The 33-year-old's future is still yet to be officially decided, with it possible, though seemingly unlikely, that he could be lining up at the start of next season for a different club.

The only criticism that can really be levelled at Messi is his lack of success at international level. While a seventh Ballon d'Or seems unlikely at this stage, should he lift the Copa America this summer with Argentina there is every chance he is once again the man to beat.

Kevin De Bruyne

Manchester City & Belgium; Current odds 10/1

While Kante left the Champions League final with universal praise and the biggest prize in club football, Kevin De Bruyne flew away from the Portuguese sun with a fractured nose and eye socket.

The most important night of his career turned into a nightmare, but the Belgian midfielder was a joy to watch this season despite being hampered by injuries at times.

De Bruyne still managed 12 goals and 20 assists for club and country, helping Manchester City to the Premier League title in a season that for so long looked like it may end up with a quadruple for Pep Guardiola's side.

Only two players, Michael Owen in 2001 and Ronaldo in 2008 have won the Ballon d'Or while playing in the Premier League, but a second successive PFA Player of the Year award shows what a special talent De Bruyne is.

The Euros could have a big impact on his chances with Belgium yet to fulfil their potential at a major tournament, but a fired up De Bruyne looking to make up for the painful Champions League defeat could change that this summer.

Romelu Lukaku

Inter Milan & Belgium; Current odds 25/1
Romelu Lukaku scored 24 Serie A goals last season to lead Inter Milan to a first league title for over a decade in comprehensive fashion.

The Belgian forward has thrived in Italy ever since arriving from Manchester United, and still managed to net four Champions League goals this campaign despite Inter finishing bottom of their group.

If Belgium are to have a deep run in the Euros, it seems likely Lukaku will be at the heart of it. The 28-year-old scored his 60th international goal in his country's final warm-up game Croatia, and is one of the favourites to win the Golden Boot come the end of the tournament.

Lukaku would be his country's first winner of the Ballon d'Or, and the first Inter player to win the award since the original Ronaldo back in 1997.

Despite his club form and the Serie A title, Lukaku is unlikely to be discussed as much as some of the other contenders, but a Golden Boot showing for his country this summer would put him at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Karim Benzema

Real Madrid & France; Current odds 50/1

So good was Karim Benzema for Real Madrid last season that he earned himself a call-up to the French national team for the first time in over five years.

With the likes of Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, it is not a side lacking in attacking talent, but Didier Deschamps felt strongly enough to recall Benzema in the hope he can take his club form into the Euros.

The 33-year-old scored 30 times for Real Madrid, as well as contributing nine assists, as he very nearly helped his side chase down Atletico Madrid in the La Liga title race.

He has taken up the mantle of Madrid's main man since the departure of Ronaldo, and two of Benzema's three best goalscoring seasons at the Spanish side have come since his old strike partner departed for Juventus.

A lack of international involvement would undoubtedly have counted against Benzema for the award in previous years, but now he's back involved with France and presented with an immediate chance to prove his worth on a major stage, he is another player who could take a decisive step towards the Ballon d'Or this summer.

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