Messi favourite for record fourth Ballon d'Or
Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi will discover who his rivals are for this year's Ballon d'Or on Thursday when FIFA and France Football announce the three finalists for the prestigious award in Sao Paulo.
Argentine Messi appears the overwhelming favourite for the honour and should he be crowned, he would become the first player to win the award four times having already joined French legend Michel Platini as the only other player to triumph on three consecutive occasions.
In normal circumstances, Cristiano Ronaldo's haul of 46 goals in La Liga last season -- only surpassed by Messi's astonishing 50 -- would likely have placed him in pole position, but Messi's record-breaking feats have left the Portuguese talisman in his shadow.
Messi's brace in Barca's 4-0 win at Levante on Sunday lifted him onto 82 goals for the season, just three short of Gerd Mueller's all-time calendar record of 85 set in 1972.
The 25-year-old also drew level with Ruud van Nistelrooy as the second-highest scorer in Champions League history with 56 goals last week, trailing only former Real Madrid and Schalke striker Raul's tally of 71.
Unsurprisingly, Messi has the backing of Barca teammate Gerard Pique -- one of eight Spaniards on the 23-man shortlist.
"I respect those who believe that Cristiano Ronaldo deserves the Ballon d'Or, but I live with Leo, he is an alien, and Cristiano is the best of the humans," reasoned the Barcelona defender.
With Ronaldo, who guided his country to the semi-finals of Euro 2012 only for Portugal to lose to their Iberian neighbours Spain on penalties, also assured of making the cut, the identity of the third nominee will arguably be Thursday's most intriguing revelation.
Andres Iniesta and Xavi are prime candidates for the final spot, having played central roles in Spain's defence of their European title, while La Roja captain Iker Casillas labelled Real Madrid colleague Sergio Ramos as his "first option", hardly music to Ronaldo's ears.
Iniesta, voted the best player of Euro 2012, finished second to Messi following Spain's World Cup glory in 2010, while Xavi has featured on the last three ballots, coming third each time.
The winner, voted for by journalists as well as the captains and managers of national teams, will be unveiled in Zurich on January 7.
23-man shortlist of players listed alphabetically:
Sergio Aguero, Xabi Alonso, Mario Balotelli, Karim Benzema, Gianluigi Buffon, Sergio Busquets, Iker Casillas, Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Radamel Falcao, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Manuel Neuer, Neymar, Mesut Ozil, Gerard Pique, Andrea Pirlo, Sergio Ramos, Wayne Rooney, Yaya Toure, Robin van Persie, Xavi.