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ESPN FC  By ESPN staff

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar in Ballon d'Or battle

The Ballon d'Or winner is announced on Jan. 11 with Barcelona duo Lionel Messi and Neymar hoping to take the title away from Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo.

Who deserves the award for his exploits in 2015? ESPN FC's Barcelona and Real Madrid bloggers, Lee Roden, Francesc Tomas and Rob Train, put forward their cases for who should win.

Lionel Messi

Why should he win?

Because the best player on the planet and produced the most complete season of his career. It's impossible to understand Barcelona's five-trophy haul in 2015 without honing in on the point in the middle of the season when Messi moved away from centre-forward and out to a starting position on the right. Suddenly, with their No.10 handed a panoramic vision of the pitch and the opportunity to thread passes through to Neymar and Luis Suarez, Barca started controlling games again. Messi wasn't just the best striker in the world last year; he became the best midfielder in the world, too.

Highlight of the season

Between the build-up play, the quality of the finish and the level of the occasion, Messi's second goal at the Camp Nou against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal second leg on May 6 stands out above his other great moments of the season. Pep Guardiola's side could feasibly have recovered from Barcelona's first goal, but the nature of the second completely shattered their confidence. From leaving Jerome Boateng on his backside, to chipping the world's best goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, on his weaker foot, to doing so against a team led by his old mentor, it was a moment that encapsulated why Messi is a cut above mere mortals.

The case against

Messi's inability to win a second successive international final is perhaps the question mark against his name over the past year, but even then, it feels like a stretch to use that collective failure to mount an individual case against him. After all, Tata Martino's disjointed Argentina wouldn't have made it to the Copa America final in the first place without Messi's influence. If his teammates had taken their penalties as well as he did in the decisive shoot-out against Chile, Argentina would likely have won.

Will he be on the shortlist next year?

Unless something dramatic happens in the next six months it is hard to see how Messi could miss out on the podium come this time in 2017. The real debate is whether he will be properly challenged for the prize or not.

Neymar

Why should he win?

He is, without a doubt, the most improved star in world football. While his quality was obvious from the moment he debuted for Santos at only 17, the Brazilian is slowly but surely fulfilling his full potential since joining Barcelona.

The No.11's unusual level of maturity, constant desire to improve his own performance and jaw-dropping skills helped him excel alongside teammates Messi and Luis Suarez, forming an instantly legendary partnership which totalled a record-breaking 180 goals in 2015 -- an impressive 75 percent of Barca's total.

Having scored 41 times and created countless chances for others, Neymar played a vital role which helped the Camp Nou giants conquer a memorable five trophies.

Highlight of the season

While Neymar has been influential in every competition, his stellar performances in the Champions League helped him top the European goal-scoring charts with 10 goals alongside fellow Ballon d'Or candidates Messi and Ronaldo.

In clear contrast to the Real Madrid forward, however, Neymar scored the majority of his goals when it truly mattered: the decisive knockout stages. With three goals in the quarterfinals against Paris St-Germain, another three in the semis against Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich and even getting his name on the scoresheet in the final, the Brazilian was arguably Barca's most decisive player in the biggest club competition in world football.

The case against

As good as Neymar has been, there is a certain Argentinean genius who is also fully deserving of the Ballon d'Or. Fortunately, being tipped by his Barcelona teammate for the award would be far from a tragedy as the No.10's success would be due to the Brazilian's contribution anyway. As long as Messi remembers to acknowledge Neymar's influence in his winner's speech, which he would most definitely do, both South American stars should celebrate together.

Given the fact that Ronaldo was unable to lead his club to a single trophy despite his individual brilliance, his mere presence in the final three-man shortlist ahead of Luis Suarez is questionable in itself.

Will he be on the shortlist next year?

Still only 23, Neymar has plenty of room for further improvement if he remains fully focused on the pitch and disciplined off it. Undoubtedly, the gifted Brazilian has everything in his favour to become an even more dominant force in years to come, especially if his almost instinctive connection with Messi develops even further.

With 15 goals and 7 assists to his name after just 18 La Liga matches, it is clear the No.11 is determined to continue his journey towards.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Why should he win?

Ronaldo won the Pichichi trophy as La Liga's highest scorer, beating his previous best mark for a season at Real Madrid with 48 goals. He also joint top-scored in the Champions League with Messi, hitting 10 to help Real to the semifinals. In both competitions, Ronaldo provided 25 assists. On the international stage, the Portugal captain aided his country to direct qualification for Euro 2016, thus avoiding the playoffs for the first time in three qualification attempts. Ronaldo also lifted the Club World Cup in Morocco and became Real's leading all-time scorer, beating Raul's mark of 323 in considerably fewer than half the number of matches.

Highlight of the season

The period of consideration runs from 22 November 2014 to 20 November 2015, which in Ronaldo's case encompasses four hat tricks in La Liga, one in the Champions League and five goal-hauls against Granada and Espanyol. Not that it will matter hugely, but the 4-0 drubbing by Barcelona in the last Clasico took place on November 21. Ronaldo's treble strike against Shakhtar in September took his career Champions League tally to 80, another record as Messi stood on 77 at the time. But the highlight of the Portuguese's year has to be his second goal in the 3-0 victory over Levante on October 15, which brought up the historic figure of 324 goals for Real Madrid.

The case against

Messi's name is already etched on the gong. Working against Ronaldo is a lack of serious silverware, while the Argentinean won the treble with Barcelona and led his country to the Copa America final. This season, Ronaldo has also failed to score in 10 of 18 Liga matches, including against Atletico, Barcelona, Sevilla, Villarreal and Valencia (Real's record in those games was drawn two, lost three). Although a separate prize, Messi is likely to add to Ronaldo's woe in Zurich by picking up the Puskas Award for the best goal of the year, a Maradona-esque run through Athletic's defence in the final of the Copa del Rey. 

Will he be on the shortlist next year?

Inevitably. The Ballon d'Or is voted on by club managers, captains and a selection of journalists. Unfortunately, few of these seem to have heard of any players outside of a monotonous roll-call of the usual suspects.No defender has won since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 and no goalkeeper since Lev Yashin in 1963. The last defensive midfielder to pick up the award was Matthias Sammer in 1996. The Ballon d'Or in this era always goes to a goalscorer or creative midfielder, so Ronaldo and Messi will be on the three-man shortlist next year as surely as night follows day. The two have dominated the affair since 2008, winning three and four respectively in that time

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