By Ewan Roberts
On Monday night, the good and the great of world football descended upon Zurich for the annual Ballon d’Or ceremony. But in a major dent to the ego of the Greatest League in the World™, there was no Premier League representation.
Just like last year, the three-man shortlist of nominees was made up exclusively of La Liga stars: Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, and Barcelona pair Andres Iniesta and – the winner of the award – Lionel Messi, while the Team of the Year featured no players based outside of Spain.
Were it not for the brilliance of Barca’s Atomic Flea and his abacus-shattering 91-goal haul in the year 2012, Ronaldo would be the player being compared against the legends of yesteryear; instead, Ronaldo is only ever judged in relation to the 25-year-old Argentine, in whose shadow he nevertheless manages to glisten.
Messi and Ronaldo stand apart from other players, their dominance over the sport is unquestionable, but behind them is a plethora of extremely talented players competing for the title of “best of the rest” – and, though he received just 1.45% of the total Ballon d’Or vote, Robin van Persie is right at the front of that scramble.
|FIFA BALLON D’OR 2012 RESULTS
|PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL FINAL VOTE
|1. LIONEL MESSI
2. CRISTIANO RONALDO
3. ANDRES INIESTA
5. RADAMEL FALCAO
6. IKER CASILLAS
7. ANDREA PIRLO
8. DIDIER DROGBA
9. ROBIN VAN PERSIE
10. ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC
The Premier League has not produced a nominee/winner of the Ballon d’Or since Ronaldo’s explosive 42-goal haul in a Manchester United shirt in the 2007-08 season earned him the prestigious title, and no current player in English football’s top-flight looks capable of usurping Messi in the near future.
But van Persie is close to establishing himself as both the third best player in the world and the best out-and-out striker. The Dutchman has already notched 16 goals this season (as many as Ronaldo), and topped the Premier League’s scoring charts in the 2011-12 season too.
The Manchester United forward has been sensational for his new club, carrying on the good form he showed with Arsenal. Were it not for the Dutchman, the Gunners would not be playing Champions League football this year, with van Persie single-handedly dragging the north London club to third-place in the league.
Last season, the 29-year-old scored 30 league goals, the highest end of season total since Ronaldo was gracing the Premier League, as well as contributing nine assists – a combined tally which accounted for 52.7% of all Arsenal’s league goals.
There is an ominous inevitability about the Dutchman when he cocks his majestically ferocious left boot, and an air of defeated resignation from goalkeepers and defenders when he approaches the goal.
In all competitions with the Red Devils this season, van Persie has scored or assisted every 76 minutes, which compares favourably with Ballon d’Or runner-up Ronaldo, who has directly contributed to a goal every 81 minutes.
Radamel Falcao and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are perhaps the biggest rivals to van Persie’s chief bridesmaid aspirations, but the Dutchman is more talismanic than either; his mere presence induces dread-filled panic amongst opposition defences, and he does not possess the peripheral tendencies of either player.
Van Persie, with his 46 league goals in the last season-and-a-half, is also producing brilliance in an extremely competitive league, whereas Paris Saint-Germain’s brooding Swede is dominating against mediocre opposition. The difference in quality is highlighted by the sheer volume of Ligue 1 exports that have failed elsewhere (last year’s topscorer Olivier Giroud has struggled to replicate his Montpellier form in England, likewise Marouane Chamakh).
Van Persie has also established himself as a scorer of vital goals. He’s not a flat-track bully, he does not simply obliterate minnows in games that are already won. This year’s Premier League coverage has been plastered with the phrase ‘every goal matters’, and for van Persie they usually do.
The summer signing has scored in eight of his last nine games (but only struck twice or more once) – half of which were one-goal margin victories. So many of the Dutchman’s goals are worth valuable points, whereas many of Falcao’s goals are simply inflicting further punishment and embarrassment on an already beaten side – 47% of the Colombian’s 17 league goals this year came in just two games (against Athletic Bilbao and Deportivo).
The speed with which Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has come to rely on van Persie is startling, and it underlines the immense quality of the player.
He’s become one of United’s greatest ever get-out-of-jail-free cards, embracing the never-say-die attitude that has typified the Red Devils during the Scottish manager’s 26-year reign. The Dutchman was to the rescue once more against West Ham, keeping the club in the FA Cup like a one-man A-Team, his every pitter-patter on the Upton Park pitch like a note from the 80’s TV show’s rumbustious and rousing theme tune.
“You take away Messi and Ronaldo, and van Persie is probably the best player in the world,” defeated Hammer Joe Cole said after the match. “He is a joy to watch and a pain to play against.”
‘If you have a problem, if no one else can help’, then, in Man Utd’s case, you can most definitely call upon Robin van Persie. Sir Alex is loving how his Dutch masterplan has come together, and the Red Devils’ aspirations domestically and in Europe will hinge on his contributions – and, in doing so, his worth will be revealed to the rest of Europe who so criminally overlooked him this year.
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