ESPN FC May Player of the Month -- Messi, Ronaldo or Kostic?
As the calendar turns to June, the bulk of clubs from Europe's big five leagues have adjourned for the season. One club still in action, though, is Barcelona, who will meet Juventus on Saturday in the Champions League final. Aside from being the biggest fixture of the club football season, Saturday also provides the world with one final look at Lionel Messi this campaign.
While the Argentine has racked up three of the past four ESPN FC Player of the Month awards, he has thrown on the afterburners this month, arguably looking his most regal in Saturday's Copa del Rey triumph over Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou. Can he be stopped?
Europe's top performers in May have been whittled to a three-man short list in consultation with WhoScored.com and ESPN FC's writers. Now it's up to you to select which of the three deserves to be named the ESPN FC Player of the Month for May.
NOTE: Only players with three or more appearances were considered.
LIONEL MESSI (Barcelona)
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Messi's uptick in form has coincided with Barcelona's transformation from club in disarray, left in the wake of Real Madrid, to Liga and Copa del Rey holders with the prospect of a Treble looming large. All the way back in January, it looked as though Messi and manager Luis Enrique were incompatible. It was a clash of two enormous club personalities, and it seemed as though one of the two would have to yield.
Since, though, Xavi Hernandez has helped keep the peace, and his teammates have bought into Luis Enrique's ways. That includes Messi, who started the campaign with 22 goals and nine assists in the first four months of the season, and then piled on 37 more goals and another 19 assists after his clashes with Luis Enrique came to a head. As if those numbers weren't impressive enough, nine of those goals have come in seven appearances across all competitions in May.
"Even by Lionel Messi's standards, May has been a pretty special month," says Barcelona blogger Lee Roden. "Over the course of the last four weeks, the Argentinean has scored goals that decided two titles, as well as others that could have played a definitive role in deciding a third. His team goal that claimed La Liga against Atletico Madrid on May 17 was wonderful, and the opener that broke Athletic Club's resolve in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday was up there with his best individual efforts, but the most impressive finish of the month was probably one of the first.
"For 76 minutes at the Camp Nou on May 6, Bayern Munich and Barca pulled this way and that in perhaps the biggest fixture of the club year, the diminishing clock suggesting Pep Guardiola would take a decent result back to Germany. Then, La Pulga decided enough was enough. His powerful opener from outside the area is an important goal of the kind we've seen countless times before from the No. 10, but his second was a subtle variation on a theme that told a bigger story. A chip, with a difference.
"Jerome Boateng is not the first quality defender to be humiliated by Messi and Manuel Neuer not the first keeper to suffer his wrath, but the key detail this time was the foot. Messi's right leg has long been held up as one of his few weaknesses, but this season the notion of it being subpar has been obliterated with 17 strikes coming from that side. His ability to deliver an incredibly difficult chip that flummoxed Germany's No. 1 with that foot can only be explained by hard work in training -- the payoff is another weapon in his terrifyingly complete arsenal. Worryingly for opponents, May showed that Messi is still improving."
CRISTIANO RONALDO (Real Madrid)
While Messi's form has been the spark that's helped propel his side to a season conclusion filled with silverware, Cristiano Ronaldo has statistically delivered an even more impressive month -- all while his Real Madrid watched as La Liga and Champions League glory slipped through their fingers. The Portuguese delivered 11 goals and a solitary assist in May, with nine of those markers coming in the league.
Spain correspondent Dermot Corrigan writes: "The final month of the Liga season did not go well for Real Madrid, but one Blancos player absolved of the blame was Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored 11 goals in his six games in May.
"Ronaldo began the month with a treble at Sevilla in La Liga, as Madrid won 3-2 to keep their title hopes alive. His worst moment of the month came with a missed penalty in the following week's 2-2 draw at home to Valencia, a slipup that allowed Barcelona to take control at the top. The Portugal international then scored both his side's goals during their 3-2 aggregate defeat to Juventus in the Champions League semifinals, salvaging some personal pride although his team crashed out.
"Even with Madrid now out of contention for team trophies, Ronaldo ensured he took the Pichichi trophy for La Liga's top scorer by notching hat tricks in each of the final two games. This brought the now-30-year-old to 61 goals in all competitions for 2014-15 -- the best tally of his whole career."
FILIP KOSTIC (Stuttgart)
Admittedly, Stuttgart's Filip Kostic doesn't have the big-name panache of Messi or Ronaldo. His numbers aren't anywhere near as impressive as that pair's, either: the Serbian netted just twice in May and had no assists. However, his dribbles-per-game nearly doubles Messi's, and he pumped in nearly four successful crosses each game. This points to a player lacking in gaudy stats but making up for it by creating chances for a Stuttgart side that was in desperate need of such creativity, escaping relegation only on the final day.
Germany correspondent Stephan Uersfeld writes: "Twenty-two-year-old Kostic joined Stuttgart from Dutch outfit FC Groningen prior to the season. The left winger arrived at the Bundesliga side for €5 million as the marquee transfer. He disappeared, and until early April had won only seven starts for the 2007 champions.
"He went on to start the remaining eight games of the season. He first formed a solid partnership with striker Daniel Ginczek and attacking midfielder Martin Harnik, and once No. 10 Daniel Didavi joined them up front, the quartet managed to guide Stuttgart to safety by securing three wins in their final three matches of the season.
"Kostic, nicknamed Arjen at Groningen for his runs from the wing into the middle, combines technique, speed and a certain freshness that have turned him into one of the most exciting players in the run-in of the Bundesliga season. More importantly, his form helped secure his side another year of top-flight football."