Who is the season's top player? The Goal 50 race has never been so close

Bayern were Europe's best team but no individual truly stood out, while Messi and Ronaldo didn't have things all their own way - making choosing the winner a difficult task
By Peter Staunton | International Football Writer

There has been a shift in the football landscape over the past 12 months that makes it ever so difficult to name the best player of the 2012-13 season. Is individual brilliance alone sufficient to bag the accolade? Should the best player represent the best team? Or should a player be rewarded for scaling new personal heights? No longer is it a cut-and-dried debate; a carve-up between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was the type of season in which the outstanding team dominated without supplying one outstanding candidate above any other, such was the unrelenting consistency of Bayern Munich, which makes the race for this year's Goal 50 the tightest in years ahead of its announcement on Monday.

Spain's two leading clubs continue to suck the life from the rest of the Spanish top flight but even those teams could not compete sufficiently at the latter end of the Champions League campaign. Barcelona, in a bad season by their standards, won 'only' the league title while Real Madrid frayed at the seams in a wearyingly familiar fashion.

The forward inspired Manchester United to Premier League and Champions League glory.

The Barcelona star helped defeat the reigning European champions as Pep Guardiola's side began to establish their dominance of the continent.

The playmaker drove Inter to treble glory before leading Netherlands to the final of the World Cup.

Another Champions League winners' medal and 53 goals saw the Argentinian clinch his second Goal 50 crown.

Despite being outscored by Messi, the Portuguese fired Mourinho's Madrid to the Liga title with a record points tally.

That said, Messi's goalscoring tally alone makes him a consideration and his importance to the Barca cause was perhaps best emphasised by the sorry void he left when his team-mates were obliterated over two legs against Bayern. He is the best player in the world but he didn't have the best of seasons.

Although Borussia Dortmund and Bayern overcame Madrid and Barca respectively in the Champions League semi-finals last season it seemed to be only a temporary subduing of the Clasico clubs. On-field superiority and stockpiling of the world's best players suggested that their dominance would continue unchecked. It was inevitable, when it came to totting up individual contributions, that representatives of both would be high in the reckoning.

Real and Barca supplied a good deal of Spain's all-conquering international team too. Their victory in Euro 2012 looked to be just another trophy for Vicente del Bosque's side, who seemed intent on hoovering up all the honours the football world could offer.

But the world looks a very different place this summer. Widespread changes have taken place at Real Madrid, Barcelona are in the process of their most profound period of readjustment since the arrival of Pep Guardiola in 2008 and Spain's glory boys found the Confederations Cup a step too far.  

Bayern, European champions and holders of the domestic double, proved beyond doubt that they are the best club team in the world. Last season they won all the prizes in as dominant a fashion as the game has ever seen. Their unit functioned efficiently with no over-reliance on any one individual. Franck Ribery was probably their most consistent player across the season but that acknowledgement, modest as it is, significantly downplays the effectiveness of Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Dante, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Mario Mandzukic and even Arjen Robben.

Furthermore, despite the all-German Champions League final and the emergence of the Bundesliga as the home to many excellent players and teams, there remains a tendency for it to be undersold as a product. It is still on the fringes of European football's perceived elite trio of leagues - Spain, England and Italy. Until widespread recognition for the standard of play matches respectful commendation of the sound financial practices evident in German football then this fact is unlikely to change. Even so, it is difficult to let go of the perception of Madrid and Barca being the dominant forces. A few years before that and it was similar thinking in regard to England's 'Big Four'.

The Premier League, these days, cannot be said to currently contain any of the best players of the past 12 months. The persistent rejection in this summer's market of the best-available players paints the league in a neglected, depleted hue. Consequently, prime players of international renown are thinner than ever on the ground. Those that did play well from within the confines of the Premier League last season did only that, without impressing on the continental stage. And to truly be regarded as the best, then that is the arena in which a player has to shine.

While Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick took the paludits on the domestic trail, the same could not be said for their performances in the Champions League, where United surrendered their challenge at the last 16 stage.

Luis Suarez did not have any opportunity to express himself in Europe's best competition; he was stuck in the Europa League doldrums with Gareth Bale, the finest player on the British Isles.

That said, there is nothing like a good summer of international football to catapult individuals into the limelight. Competitions like the World Cup or the European Championship generally provoke a proliferation of those players who impressed on the tournament stage into contention for award season. The Confederations Cup may have finally brought Neymar to wider appreciation and awakened Europe's senses to the talents of Fred and Paulinho but that competition is of too late consequence to shake up the latter ends of award lists.

In that respect it is more difficult than ever to select the man to head the Goal 50. In the absence of one outstanding candidate towering above all the rest in terms of ability and achievement, we are left with an open playing field. If it were simply a case of picking the best player in the world, it would be easier. If it were a reward for growth on a personal level then Bale and Neymar would be serious contenders. If it were to be a prize for being the best player in the best team then a good percentage of Bayern's first team could share it between them.

As it stands, it's anyone's game.