Virgil Van Dijk, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who will be named Europe’s best player?

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Virgil Van Dijk, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who will be named Europe’s best player?
Van Dijk, Messi, Ronaldo: Can the Dutch defender do what Luka Modric did a year ago and beat the game’s two superstars to the award?

Uefa will name its Men’s Player of the Year on Thursday with Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk up against Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi for the award.

Last year, Luka Modric ended Ronaldo and Messi’s dominance of the award – and Van Dijk will be hopeful of leaving the duo empty-handed again after a stellar season with the Reds.

Just how good have the three contenders been over the past year? BBC Sport, with the help of sports analysts Opta, takes a look.

Familiar foes Messi and Ronaldo up once again

It is a battle as old as time itself – or so it can feel.

When it comes to the shortlists for best player trophies – whether in Europe or the world – Messi and Ronaldo have been on them for the best part of the decade.

Since the inception of the Uefa Men’s Player of the Year award in 2011, Ronaldo has won it three times (2014, 2016, 2017), while Messi has won it twice (2011 and 2015).

The pair are in the running once again after phenomenal seasons. Ronaldo helped Juventus win Serie A while Messi led Barcelona to the La Liga title.

But how does their form over the past year compare?

Lionel Messi Cristiano Ronaldo
Barcelona Argentina Club & Country Juventus Portugal Club & Country
Games played 50 8 58 43 4 47
Minutes played 4,024 622 4,646 3,646 300 3,946
Goals 51 3 54 28 3 31
Mins per goal 79 207 86 130 100 127
Total shots 258 26 284 235 19 254
Shot conversion 19.8% 11.5% 19% 11.9% 15.8% 12.2%
Expected goals (xG) 35.62 3.31 38.93 28.3 1.29 29.59
*All data is from 31 July 2018 to 31 July 2019

Between 31 July 2018 and 31 July 2019, Messi was by far the deadlier finisher for club and country. During that 12-month period he scored 54 goals to Ronaldo’s 31 and boasted a goals-per-minute ratio of 86 minutes, compared to 127 for his Portuguese rival.

Messi also did much better than he would be expected to do with the opportunities that came his way, scoring just under 15 more goals than his expected goals tally (35.62) for Barcelona. Ronaldo, meanwhile, scored 28 goals, pretty much on par with his expected goals total (28.3).

Widening out the comparison to the rest of Europe, Messi outscored all his rivals – his closest challenger, Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, scored 11 goals fewer than the Argentina international with 40.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, was outscored by eight players in Europe’s top five leagues while his total of 21 league goals was bettered by three players in Serie A.

You shall not pass

On Saturday, Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe became the first player to successfully dribble past Virgil van Dijk in the Dutch defender’s past 50 Premier League appearances

Van Dijk has been a revelation for Liverpool since joining from Southampton and was an integral part of the side that won the Champions League last season and pushed eventual Premier League champions Manchester City all the way.

A defender has never won the award before so for the Dutch international to be in the running against Messi and Ronaldo is already a big achievement.

But can he be crowned Europe’s best player? Let’s take a look at his statistics from 2018-19.

Van Dijk made a total of 59 appearances for club and country last season, scoring nine goals and providing four assists. He also played more minutes for Liverpool (4,465) than any other outfield player. In all competitions, meanwhile, he won over 70% of his duels and aerial battles, underlining his importance at the heart of the defence.

Virgil van Dijk
Liverpool Netherlands Club & Country
*All data is from July 31st 2018 to July 31st 2019
Games played 50 9 59
Minutes played 4,465 840 5,305
Duels 411 64 475
Duels won 303 47 350
Duel success % 73.7% 73.4% 73.7%
Aerials 308 44 352
Aerials won 223 34 257
Aerial success % 72.4% 77.3% 73%

Liverpool conceded fewer goals (22) than any other Premier League side last season and Van Dijk was key to that as he won 76.3% of his duels in the league.

Compare that to other defenders in Europe’s top five leagues and, of the 293 defenders to be involved in 200 or more duels in 2018-19, no player won a higher percentage than Van Dijk.

Defenders in Top Five Euro Leagues: 2018-19 Competition Duels Duels Won Duels Success
*All data is from 31 July 2018 to 31 July 2019
Virgil van Dijk English Premier League 321 245 76.3%
Marcelo French Ligue 1 325 237 72.9%
Harry Maguire English Premier League 249 181 72.7%
Salif Sané German Bundesliga 307 219 71.3%
Shane Duffy English Premier League 340 238 70.0%

It was only to be expected that Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp would be singing his defender’s praises after the Reds brushed aside Premier League rivals Arsenal 3-1 on Saturday, but the former Borussia Dortmund boss feels it is the right time for a defender to be recognised as Europe’s best.

“Modern football should be a bit more open for these things,” he said.

“We don’t have to talk just about Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. If we talk about last season, Virgil deserves it; if we talk about lifetime career then Messi and Ronaldo fight for it.

“It is good for kids to see you can be a superstar even if you only defend.”

Differentiating the awards
Criteria 2018 winner When awarded this year
Uefa Player of Year Best performances – domestic and internationally – by a player playing at a Uefa member club Luka Modric 29 August
Fifa Best Player Sporting performance as well as general conduct on and off the pitch by a player anywhere in the world Luka Modric 23 September
Ballon d’Or On-field performance and behaviour on and off the pitch by a player anywhere in the world Luka Modric tbc, December

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