Bayern Munich head coach Hansi Flick said Robert Lewandowski can win the Ballon d'Or after taking his season tally to 51 goals after the German champions won the DFB-Pokal title.

Lewandowski scored twice as Bayern eased past Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 on Saturday to retain their DFB-Pokal crown and wrap up a domestic double for the second successive season.

After David Alaba and Serge Gnabry put Bayern ahead, Lewandowski took centre stage in the second half with goals in the 59th and 89th minutes behind closed doors in Berlin.

It continued Lewandowski's red-hot form in 2019-20 after the Poland international star exceeded half a century of goals across all competitions this term.

Lewandowski topped the Bundesliga charts with 34 goals to lead Bayern to an eighth consecutive title, while he has netted 11 in the Champions League as Europe's premier club competition prepares to return next month.

And Flick backed Lewandowski for Ballon d'Or glory post-match, telling reporters: "Fifty-one goals are already very strong. The first goal Lewy scored, the third goal we scored, was already excellent.

"The way he takes the ball down there and the way he locks up. Of course, he's had a bit of luck with that as well. But that's what distinguishes him, that he has this confidence in his quality.

"If I measure for goals now and I see that he has scored 34 goals in the Bundesliga this year, then you can think about how a player from the Bundesliga can become the Ballon d'Or winner. So why not? He has laid all the groundwork with this achievement this year and I would wish him well."

Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi won the Ballon d'Or in 2019, edging Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The last Bayern player to receive the individual honour was Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in 1981.

Cristiano Ronaldo's impact at Real Madrid was truly phenomenal – there's certainly an argument for him being the greatest signing in the history of the sport.

But when his move from Manchester United to the Santiago Bernabeu was completed on June 26, 2009, there was certainly more than a hint of scepticism.

Let's not forget, when Madrid paid a reported €94million (£80m) for him, Ronaldo became the most expensive footballer ever at the time, breaking a record that had stood for eight years.

There were plenty of people suggesting Madrid had paid over the odds for him, but now we all know what a remarkable signing he was for Los Blancos and Spanish football until his departure for Juventus in 2018.

On the 11th anniversary of Ronaldo joining Madrid, we look back on his time with the club and his legacy, with a little help from Opta.

The early years – finding another level

Ronaldo had already won the Ballon d'Or during his time at Old Trafford, so his quality was never in doubt, but a haul of 33 goals across all competitions in his first season with Los Blancos was an impressive start, particularly given it was an increase of eight on his final campaign in England.

But it was just the tip of the iceberg. As it would turn out, 2009-10 was the only one of Ronaldo's nine seasons with Madrid in which he failed to reach the 40-goal mark.

Granted, the Portugal star played significantly more games over the next few years, but to maintain that consistency – and arguably improve on it – over 50-plus matches without suffering fatigue is genuinely remarkable.

In 2010-11 Ronaldo claimed his first trophy for the club – the Copa del Rey – and had a hand in 69 goals (53 scored, 16 assisted) in 54 matches. He then improved on that further the next year, his 60 goals and 15 assists helping Madrid to their first LaLiga title in four years and the Champions League semi-finals.

By 2012, Ronaldo was already finding himself mentioned in debates regarding the "greatest player of all time" – that would only intensify in the coming years.

Sustaining greatness

The Champions League has long been an obsession of Real Madrid's, and so too it became a major goal of Ronaldo's – after all, three successive last-four eliminations meant five full seasons passed without the forward lifting the famous trophy.

For Madrid, the barren run had been even longer. They'd been chasing 'La Decima' since 2002, but finally, in 2013-14, the wait was over – Ronaldo's 65 goal involvements (51 goals, 14 assists) leading them to a European and Copa del Rey double. His late penalty in the 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid that saw them crowned Champions League kings took his tally to 17 goals for the season in that competition, a record.

Three more Champions League titles followed over the next four years, though 2014-15 – when Ronaldo enjoyed the best individual season of his career with 61 goals and 21 assists – was the anomaly. He would only score in one of those three finales, however, the 4-1 over future employers Juventus, though he did net the decisive shoot-out spot-kick a year to again break Atletico hearts in 2016.

Ronaldo's final two years in Madrid saw the club win a total of eight trophies, while he scored 86 times and moved level for a while on five Ballon d'Or wins with Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo became synonymous with the Real Madrid brand – it became difficult to imagine the two without each other, but in 2018 they parted ways, ending one of the most iconic player-club associations in modern football.

The legacy

Across his nine years with Madrid, Ronaldo scored 450 goals and laid on another 119. The former figure makes him the club's all-time leading scorer.

He surpassed Raul (323) in October 2015, having already cruised past the like of Ferenc Puskas, Carlos Santillana and Alfredo Di Stefano.

Of those goals, 311 came in LaLiga, a figure only Messi (440) can better – though the Argentina star has spent his entire career in Spanish football.

While all defenders are likely to have been glad to see Ronaldo leave LaLiga, he had a particular penchant for netting against a select few teams. Barcelona (18), Celta Vigo (20), Atletico Madrid (22), Getafe (23) and Sevilla (27) were his most frequent victims.

But it wasn't just LaLiga opposition against whom he thrived – he was the first player to score 10 Champions League goals in seven successive seasons and to reach a haul of 100 in the competition for a single club.

At the age of 35, he continues to excel for Juve in Serie A. But it was with Madrid where his impact was most felt, and it will be a long time before the club see anything even remotely comparable again, if they ever do.

Neymar will be the leading contender for the Ballon d'Or if he guides Paris Saint-Germain to Champions League glory in August, according to Kaka.

PSG have not played a competitive game since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, though they were declared Ligue 1 champions when the season was curtailed in April.

Thomas Tuchel's team will therefore be fresh when they head into a re-formatted Champions League finale in six weeks.

Due to international travel restrictions, the last eight of Europe's premier club competition will head to Lisbon for a mini-tournament of single-leg knockout games played across 12 days to decide the title.

PSG will take part after Neymar scored in both legs of their last-16 elimination of Borussia Dortmund before the season was put on hold.

Kaka won the Ballon d'Or in 2007 and was the last player not named Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to receive the award until Luka Modric took it in 2018.

The former Real Madrid and Milan star thinks inspiring PSG to their first Champions League trophy would put Neymar in line for similar recognition.

Asked if Brazil had any candidates for the Ballon d'Or, Kaka told Globo Esporte: "The first is Ney, who is a strong favourite.

"I believe Neymar is one of the best players today. Whether he wins the award will depend on the team achievement he is part of.

"Now, let's look at this Champions League final in Lisbon: Neymar being the protagonist, Paris Saint-Germain the champions.

"Neymar deservedly wins the award for best player in the world."

The Champions League quarter-finals will start on August 12, with four last-16 ties to be settled the week prior.

Robert Lewandowski says the Ballon d'Or is not his focus but that "anything is possible" when it comes to winning the award.

The Bayern Munich striker has never been in the top three for football's most prestigious individual prize, his best record coming when he finished fourth in the standings in 2015.

The 31-year-old is likely to be in the running for the 2020 prize, though, having scored 45 goals in all competitions to put Bayern on the brink of another Bundesliga title.

Should Hansi Flick's side also win the DFB-Pokal and Champions League this term, Lewandowski would be a strong candidate to become just the second player other than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to win the award since 2007.

"I was at the award ceremony last December," Lewandowski told France Football.

"We'll see. What I try to do is to always show the best of myself, win trophies and score more goals. But that's something that comes with collective trophies. That's the most important thing.

"I don't even think about the Ballon d'Or, even if, in my life, I believe that anything is possible."

Lewandowski puts his spectacular form down to a careful regimen of diet and training to keep mentally and physically sharp.

"I don't eat meat on the day of a match. It's too heavy for my body. I eat light – that's what I need," he explained.

"The meal depends on several things: when is the game, what time is it...

"If you eat rice or pasta, it will bring you big benefits in terms of energy in the very short term. But, over time, you gain nothing.

"It's not easy [to score] especially when you are tired. With 90 per cent of goals, it's the head that does the work and it's influenced by your level of concentration.

"If you're tired, your thinking will automatically be slower. In the penalty area, we have only 0.1 seconds, maybe 0.2, to think, make our decision and interact with the ball.

"That's why we come to training, because there is no other place to build automatic movements and shots. Whether it's left foot, right foot, whatever, you have to be ready. You don't even have to think about it – you have to do it."

Jose Mourinho still struggles to explain why Wesley Sneijder and the rest of his treble-winning Inter side of 2009-10 failed to earn recognition in the Ballon d'Or voting.

A decade ago, the Nerazzurri broke new ground by winning a Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League treble, an unprecedented feat in Italian football.

Despite their remarkable campaign, a star-studded cast including Sneijder, Samuel Eto'o and Diego Milito were not recognised when it came to deciding the winner of football's most prestigious individual prize.

Indeed, Inter did not even have a player in the top three of the voting, with Lionel Messi triumphing above Barcelona team-mates Andres Iniesta and Xavi, the latter two midfield maestros having won the 2010 World Cup with Spain.

Sneijder was a losing finalist with the Netherlands in South Africa, where the attacking midfielder was joint-top scorer with Thomas Muller.

An incredulous Mourinho, speaking to The Athletic, was unable to provide a reason for a lack of individual awards for his players.

"It's strange that Samuel, during all his career, never managed to win the Ballon d'Or," the now Tottenham boss said.

"Wes was amazing that season. In the same year he wins the treble, he plays the World Cup final.

"We got to the Gala in 2010. The boys were not even on the top-three list. The only thing they managed to do was to be in the top XI, a player per position."

Mourinho departed San Siro for Real Madrid following Inter's Champions League triumph, which coincidentally was a 2-0 win over Bayern Munich at Los Blancos' Santiago Bernabeu stadium.

There were several players in the squad also winding down their Inter careers. Javier Zanetti, Marco Materazzi, Ivan Cordoba, Dejan Stankovic and Julio Cesar were all at least 30 by that point.

But Mourinho said every player in his ranks, regardless of their game time, pulled together for a common cause.

"There are different perspectives of players when they are coming to the end of their careers," the Portuguese added.

"There are the players that just want to be there for a couple more years on their contract – a few more million before they leave.

"And there are other guys with a different perspective which is: let me try to reach a high moment in my career, let me try and do something I never did. I think that was the point.

"The ones that were regular in the team, they were fantastic. But the ones that were not regular, the ones that didn't play as much, they were always there for the team, always there for the younger guys, always there for the coach, always there to help.

"It was really a fantastic achievement and one of the reasons why I was so happy. I felt that my joy and my emotions were not about me, it was about them.

"It wasn't about me winning my second Champions League – it was about them realising their dreams."

Virgil van Dijk has revealed there was an "instant feeling" with Liverpool that led to him joining the club, with the move allowing him to make "big progress" in his career.

The Netherlands centre-back eventually arrived at Anfield from Southampton for a reported £75million in January 2018, the Reds having initially attempted to sign the player prior to the start of that season.

Van Dijk has blossomed since the switch, helping Liverpool reach back-to-back Champions League finals while they had moved to the brink of a first title in the Premier League era prior to the domestic season being suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Having also finished second to Lionel Messi for the Ballon d'Or last year, the 28-year-old is delighted with the way things have worked out since choosing to head to Merseyside.

"It was surreal for me to have to make a decision where to go to at the time. The instant feeling was there with Liverpool and they ticked most of my boxes," Van Dijk said in an interview with Jamie Redknapp for Sky Sports.

"When I went to Celtic I didn't realise how big they were at the time, but I had a feeling before I joined Liverpool how big Liverpool really were.

"You see all their games, I'd played there two times before I joined them, and over the course of time before I signed, I met so many people, Liverpool fans, that would say, 'I hope you sign for us'.

"It was special, and when things got finalised and you start playing, my debut against Everton was something I will never forget.

"How things went in the end; starting in the winter, reaching the Champions League final, the disappointment of losing it but then winning it the year after, coming very close to winning the Premier League and obviously now we are in a very fortunate position to hopefully get it over the line when things start moving again.

"We are making big progress as a team and I have definitely made big progress myself."

Van Dijk was a key member of the Liverpool team that conquered in Europe last season, Jurgen Klopp's side securing the Champions League trophy.

The former Celtic defender described the final in Madrid, where they defeated Premier League rivals Tottenham, as "surreal" – and he hopes to experience it again during his career.

"Winning the Champions League was surreal. I slept only one hour after, then we went straight back to Liverpool after that and then we went on the parade," Van Dijk said.

"I couldn't keep my eyes open; I was so tired, but it was an unbelievable night, something I will never forget.

"It was just incredible, from start to finish, it's something we all want to experience again, whether it's in the Premier League or next season in the Champions League.

"We will try and go again. Hopefully we can experience something similar in the future."

Marcus Rashford can reach the same level as Kylian Mbappe and go on to win the Ballon d'Or, according to former Manchester United team-mate Matteo Darmian.

Rashford has enjoyed his most productive season in terms of goals in 2019-20, scoring 19 in all competitions for the Red Devils despite being sidelined since January due to a back injury.

The England international burst onto the scene early in 2016 under Louis van Gaal, finding the net twice on both his Europa League and Premier League debuts after coming through the club's academy system.

Darmian, however, is not surprised at the 22-year-old's continued development since then, having seen at close quarters just how good the forward is.

"I still remember Marcus Rashford's first session with the senior squad like it was yesterday. I immediately thought, 'wow, this is an incredible player'," he told the Guardian.

"He did so many impressive things for a player of his age and the way he improved in every detail really impressed me."

The Italian defender, who returned to his homeland last September by signing for Parma, feels the England international can still get even better, too.

Darmian feels Rashford has the potential to match Paris Saint-Germain superstar Mbappe, the pair perhaps competing for individual honours for many years to come.

"If he [Rashford] continues to work the way he has done so far he can be a Ballon d'Or winner. I'm convinced of this," he said.

"He impressed me the most of all the players at United and he's very young and can still improve. For me, he can reach the level of Kylian Mbappe and compete for the Ballon d’Or for years to come."

The full-back worked under Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho during his time at Old Trafford, as well as current boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

"I can only speak well about Solskjaer, believe me," Darmian said of the Norwegian. "I would give him a long-term contract.

"He's a very prepared coach and Manchester United has started this project, this journey, with many young players, many British players and they will continue with this project.

"Because of the person I got to know, I hope Solskjaer has success at the club."

Liverpool star Trent Alexander-Arnold is unfazed about individual honours, but the full-back thanked Cafu after the Brazil great said he could win the Ballon d'Or.

Alexander-Arnold, 21, has played a key role in Liverpool's dominant season so far, leading Cafu to suggest the right-back can win a Ballon d'Or.

Speaking ahead of his side's Champions League last-16 first leg against Atletico Madrid, Alexander-Arnold was thankful, but added individual prizes were not a focus.

"Obviously massive praise from a legend of the game. It's something that I'm really thankful for and obviously I have to give thanks to him for them words," he told a news conference.

"I try to be the best player I can be. I think it's obviously a team game, so it's about the players I have around me. The players I have in training, the manager, the support I have all around me that enables me to be as good as I can be.

"Accolades may or may not come in the future, it doesn't really faze me as much as maybe it does other players."

The Ballon d'Or has traditionally been won by attacking players, something Cafu suggested needed to change.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp also praised Alexander-Arnold, who has scored two goals and provided 12 assists in 35 games this season.

"Any football experts in? Did Cafu win the Ballon d'Or? So, he thinks obviously a right-back should win the Ballon d'Or?" he said.

"I couldn't love Trent Alexander-Arnold more. I admire his skills, he's a wonderful boy, character all that stuff. But it's a very positive message from Cafu.

"Yes, he has big potential. If he will win the Ballon d'Or I have no idea. Thank you Cafu for being a really nice fella, obviously."

Ashley Cole hopes the day will come when a defender wins the Ballon d'Or again but admits it is hard to envisage in the era of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Messi this year won a record sixth Ballon d'Or – edging him ahead of the five awards Ronaldo holds – when he saw off competition from Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk.

Dutchman Van Dijk has been inspirational for the Reds since he joined from Southampton midway through 2017-18, and he played a key role in their Champions League success last season.

Former England left-back Cole would have liked to see a fellow defender win the coveted trophy - awarded to the world's top player - for the first time since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006.

However, he believes Barcelona's Messi and Juventus forward Ronaldo remain clearly the best players in world football.

"It's tough," Cole told Omnisport. "You want different positions maybe being credited with how good they've played in that season, but to be honest I don't think you can look outside of Messi and Ronaldo.

"What Messi does week in, week out is not normal. Again, the same with Ronaldo. It wasn't a surprise that Messi won it but one day, yeah, we probably would like a defender to win it."

One left-back who has impressed Cole in the Premier League this season is Ben Chilwell, who has been in fine form for high-flying Leicester City.

"I think, for me, him and [Liverpool's Andy] Robertson are the best two left-backs in the Premier League at the minute," Cole said, speaking on behalf of Nissan.

Chilwell looks set to become the regular starter for England heading into Euro 2020.

"He's playing in a good Leicester team, suiting his game at the minute where he can attack and he's got protection behind him," Cole said.

"Whether he starts for England? That's probably a question for Gareth [Southgate]. I'd like to see him start because I think when he has played for England he's played very well.

"He looks accomplished there. I'd like to see him start but that's down to the manager."

Nissan are proud partners of the UEFA Champions League. UEFA ambassador Ashley Cole was at the Chelsea FC v LOSC Lille match on Tuesday 10th December, along with the UEFA Champions League Trophy, which is being driven around the UK by the next generation Nissan Juke.

Liverpool forward Sadio Mane set his sights on winning the Ballon d'Or after finishing fourth in the voting in 2019.

Barcelona captain Lionel Messi claimed the award for a record sixth time at Monday's ceremony in Paris.

Mane's club team-mate Virgil van Dijk was named runner-up and Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo ranked third, some 210 points behind his Argentine rival.

Mane was further back but the Senegal international suggested more success with European champions Liverpool could help him compete for France Football's prestigious prize.

The Reds, now a force at home and abroad, had four players in the top 10 and six in the top 20.

"That means we are a great team with great players and great quality," Mane told his club's website.

"The boys still have a lot to show and hopefully this season we can show it.

"I am very proud and happy to be named fourth in the world. I am looking forward and why not number one, maybe?

"I will do everything possible to win the Champions League and Premier League with Liverpool and we'll see what's going to happen."

Messi himself said it was a "shame" Mane had not finished higher in the aftermath of a 22-goal Premier League campaign.

The 27-year-old bounced back by starring in the 5-2 trouncing of Everton in the Merseyside derby and could start again when the leaders visit Bournemouth on Saturday.

"I think tiredness is in the head. I'm ready to go - I'm feeling fresh again," he said.

"I expect [to be rested at some point], but when they put me on the bench I respect it and I will be here to push my team-mates because we are Liverpool. 

"Wednesday was a good example with Bobby [Firmino] and Mo [Salah], it meant that other players can get the job. I'm just here and whatever they decide, I am ready to go."

Ernesto Valverde is not concerned about Lionel Messi retiring anytime soon after the Barcelona star suggested he was beginning to think about bringing his playing days to a close when he received a record sixth Ballon d'Or.

Messi, 32, overtook long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo in the Ballon d'Or stakes on Monday when he beat the Portugal forward and Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk to the individual gong, despite the latter being many people's favourite.

During Messi's acceptance speech, he remarked that he is "aware of how old I am, everything happens very quickly and I know that the moment of withdrawal is approaching".

Barca team-mate Luis Suarez insisted Messi's comments had been misinterpreted by many, adamant the Argentina great will "continue for a long while yet".

And Valverde says he sees Messi's state of mind as entirely normal, convinced his comments have been blown out of proportion.

Speaking ahead of Saturday's visit of Real Mallorca, Valverde said: "It seems natural [to think about retirement]. It seems normal.

"Leo is 32 years old and, although I don't think he is thinking about retirement, it is something that is there [in the future].

"When a player goes over 30 [years old], he always sees the end closer than when he starts, but come on, I think it goes around too much.

"You have to see it naturally. It happens to everyone as the years go by. To think about it doesn't mean it's going to be in three days."

The privilege of coaching Messi is not lost on Valverde, though he expects the honour to become even more apparent in the future.

"One is aware of that, but sometimes the day-by-day does not let you enjoy it at all," Valverde said.

"I think they are things that are valued more over time. I am aware that I have the great fortune to be able to say in a time that I have trained Leo.

"In the same way that the elders talk about [Real Madrid great Alfredo] Di Stefano, we can tell those who come after we were in Messi's time and we enjoyed it, some as close as me."

Jurgen Klopp described Virgil van Dijk receiving praise from Franco Baresi as like "being crowned by the king" after the defender led Liverpool's strong representation in this year's Ballon d'Or list.

Van Dijk narrowly finished second behind Lionel Messi in voting for the 2019 award, with the centre-back one of four Reds to be included inside the top 10.

Yet the Dutchman deserved to scoop the individual honour, according to the legendary Baresi, with the former Italy and AC Milan star stating Van Dijk was "the best" when quote-tweeting a picture of the newly-crowned winner.

Sadio Mane came in fourth, one spot ahead of team-mate Mohamed Salah, but received comforting words from the man who lifted the trophy, with Messi stating how it was a "shame" the Senegal forward finished outside the top three.

Klopp was delighted to see his players acknowledged for a 2018-19 season that climaxed with them lifting the Champions League - and believes there is still even more to come from the "incredible" Mane, who played such a pivotal role in helping Liverpool overcome a first-leg deficit to knock Barcelona out at the semi-final stage.

"The first three in the Ballon d'Or were Messi, Van Dijk and Cristiano [Ronaldo], then Sadio. That is a nice row anyway, having two players there shows how we played a good season," Klopp told the media.

"Sadio is in incredible shape. Since the first day he came in, he's been an incredible player.

"I think I can remember his first goal, against Arsenal. He was running down the line, cutting inside and then, with the next step, with the left foot, into the far corner. I can still remember it, along with all his other goals since then. In each year he has made big steps.

"I saw after how Baresi was really positive about Van Dijk. He [Baresi] is one of the biggest defenders I can remember. That's like being crowned by the king.

"For an offensive player, that's like when Messi says something like this. Sadio, especially in the game against Barcelona at home, was quite impressive.

"If he stays healthy, he will have an incredible career. I think he can climb up, Ballon d'Or wise. But other people make decisions, not even Lionel Messi can decide that."

Goalkeeper Alisson was seventh in the final Ballon d'Or results, while team-mates Roberto Firmino, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Georginio Wijnaldum finished inside the top 30.

Liverpool star Sadio Mane deserved to at least finish in the top three for the Ballon d'Or, according to Senegal team-mate Idrissa Gueye.

As Lionel Messi claimed a record sixth Ballon d'Or on Monday, Mane finished fourth behind the Barcelona forward, Liverpool team-mate Virgil van Dijk and Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Paris Saint-Germain and Senegal midfielder Gueye believes Mane deserved more after his stellar year.

"He deserved to be on the podium," Gueye said after PSG's 2-0 Ligue 1 win over Nantes on Wednesday.

"For me, he deserved the Ballon d'Or or at least the podium. Unfortunately, he is fourth and that's a shame. I feel sad for him.

"It is a source of pride for all of Senegal. With what he did last season, he really deserved better."

Mane again showed his class for Liverpool on Wednesday, scoring once and providing two assists in a 5-2 Merseyside derby win over Everton at Anfield.

The 27-year-old has scored 13 goals and provided four assists in 21 games in all competitions this season.

Sadio Mane would have won the Ballon d'Or if he was European or Brazilian, according to the Liverpool forward's Senegal team-mate Cheikhou Kouyate.

Mane came fourth in the final standings with 347 votes from the panel of world football journalists, behind winner Lionel Messi (686 votes) of Barcelona, Liverpool team-mate Virgil van Dijk (679) and Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo (476).

As well as helping his team to Champions League glory in June, Mane has continually excelled in domestic action for the Premier League's runaway leaders and Kouyate, who was part of the Palace team that lost 2-1 to Mane's Liverpool in November, suggested the 27-year-old was overlooked due to an anti-African bias.

"For me this Ballon d'Or is for Sadio Mane, there is no doubt about that," Kouyate told The Mirror.

"Listen, if Sadio was a Brazilian or a European there would not have been no debate.

"It would have been him for the award straight away and it's not because I play with him at international level, or because I know him; it's just what people who watch football feel.

"Just go back and watch what he did for both club and country and you will see in between the lines that no one has been better than him."

Mane was instrumental in Senegal's run to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, scoring three goals in five appearances before they were beaten 1-0 by Algeria at the last hurdle.

Kouyate added: "We all know that Messi is really good, maybe the greatest player, but last season, come on.

"Maybe it's not just football that they look at because there is no way three people had a better season than him [Mane].

"It's just unbelievable how some people are judged but that is not fair."

 

Cristiano Ronaldo is "coming back stronger than before", according to Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici, who scoffed at suggestions the veteran forward is "finished" after missing out on the Ballon d'Or.

Ronaldo opted not to attend the Ballon d'Or ceremony in Paris, where Lionel Messi collected the top prize for the sixth time, choosing instead to appear at the Gran Gala del Calcio in Milan, where the Juve star picked up awards for his achievements in Serie A.

Paratici was asked whether Ronaldo's recent form is a sign the 34-year-old's powers are in decline, following a run of one goal in his past five games for the Bianconeri.

The Juve chief dismissed the suggestion, telling Tuttosport: "Cristiano finished? Don't make me laugh.

"Ronaldo had a knee problem that didn't allow him to perform at his best, but now he's coming back stronger than before."

On the Ballon d'Or, Paratici added: "For me, Ronaldo also deserved it last season, where he scored [13] goals in the Champions League, many of which were decisive.

"Ronaldo also deserved the Ballon d'Or this season. He is a competitive animal. We have made a good investment with him, he has improved all of us.

"We must accept his hunger, it is what distinguishes him from others. Will he remain with Juventus? Of course."

Paratici also took the opportunity to lavish praise on Matthijs de Ligt after he won the Kopa trophy, awarded to the best player under the age of 21.

De Ligt joined Juventus in July in a €75million move from Ajax, and Paratici dubbed the deal one of the club's best.

"The more I see of him, the more I think he is a monster. He's in another category," Paratici said.

"Do you realise what it means to be a starter at a big club at 20 years old? He was immediately thrown into the fray because of the injury to [Giorgio] Chiellini. He immediately took on great responsibilities, it's crazy.

"He's our best young purchase. He will define an era, I'm sure of it."

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