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Messi, Ronaldo battling to be Europe's best

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As the clock ticks down to the announcement of the European Footballer of the Year award, the only two realistic candidates have been producing some compelling late evidence to strengthen their cause.

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona's Lionel Messi are the standout players on the planet, and it would be a travesty if one of these players failed to win the Ballon d'Or for the first time.

Whichever man is presented with the award on Dec. 2 it would be impossible to find fault with the decision. However, Messi is the slightly more deserving at this point.

The little Argentinean has been simply sensational in 2008, establishing himself beyond question as the heartbeat of the Barcelona team. His delicate skills and dynamic runs are enough to illuminate any game, and it is frightening to think that, at 21, he may not reach his peak for another few years.

Messi is a joy to watch for lovers of the game and a nightmare for opposing defenses that must break out in a cold sweat at the thought of trying to shut him down. He scored again Sunday as Barca extended its lead in La Liga, but once again his general all-round level of excellence, not simply his finishing prowess, is what was most impressive.

Ronaldo, last year's runner-up to Kaka, is also putting together a strong case to go one better this time around.

He scored his 100th goal in United colors last weekend and then added another on Saturday as part of a 5-0 demolition of Stoke City. After a tough and tense summer in which Portugal was knocked out of Euro 2008 in the quarterfinals and his mooted move to Real Madrid cast a long shadow over the transfer window, the 23-year-old is now back in full flow.

Hopefully, we will get to see these two jewels of the game in action against each other in the latter stages of this season's UEFA Champions League.

The first XI

1. Get him an Advil

Bernd Schuster's job is hanging by a thread as Real Madrid's season stumbles from one disappointment to another. A midweek defeat to third division Real Union in the Copa del Rey was followed by another loss to Real Valladolid on Saturday.

Schuster's big-money signings have failed to live up to their potential, and the coach himself is to blame for struggling to adapt to the additional scrutiny that comes with one of the top jobs in soccer.

Club president Ramon Calderon is loading the gun. Unless Schuster puts together a dramatic revival, his days are certainly numbered.

2. Get him a beer

Two years into the job, Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill has the club where he said he would take it – in position to challenge for a spot in the Champions League.

There are still several months to go, and being tied on points with fourth-place Arsenal is no guarantee of future glory. But Saturday's 2-0 road victory over the Gunners was the latest in a series of excellent performances.

O'Neill remains true to the vision he spelled out for American owner Randy Lerner in 2006 and, if he gets lucky with injuries, he could have a chance of breaking through the monopoly of the English Premier League's Big Four.

3. Get him some earplugs (and a bodyguard)

Former Brazil head coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo insisted recently he was unconcerned by the irate chants of Palmeiras fans as the club continued its downward spiral.

However, things took a nasty turn for the 56-year-old last weekend when he was allegedly ambushed by a group of his club's own supporters – and suffered a broken elbow.

Whatever the fans' frustrations, such behavior cannot be tolerated. Hopefully, Luxemburgo got in a few blows of his own before the melee broke up.

4. California dreaming

Major League Soccer's season has boiled down to one final showdown at the Home Depot Center this Sunday. The league's best team over the regular season, the Columbus Crew, takes on the red-hot New York Red Bulls after each side emerged victorious in the conference finals last week.

Look out for the league's best player, the Crew's Guillermo Barros Schelotto, to work his magic one more time to give Columbus its first ever championship.

5. Catch a flight to …

San Marino. Well actually, you can't because the tiny nation landlocked inside Italy doesn't have an airport. But San Marino takes on the Czech Republic on Wednesday in the only World Cup qualifier amid dozens of European international friendlies. It is a game the Czechs must win heavily to regain control following a shaky start to Group Three.

6. A round of applause for …

• Al Ahli and Gamba Osaka – Egyptian giants Al Ahli won the African Champions League for a record sixth time, while Gamba, from Japan, won the Asian version for the first time.

• Michael Mancienne – The English 20-year-old has never played a Premier League game and is on loan at Wolverhampton Wanderers from Chelsea. However, his shock call-up into the England squad shows Fabio Capello is not afraid to be unorthodox as he looks ahead to the 2010 World Cup.

• FIFA – Sepp Blatter and his suit-wearing squadron of bureaucrats make plenty of mistakes in overseeing the world game. But by aligning with the World Anti-Doping Agency, they have effectively made soccer players as responsible as Olympic athletes and assured there is much more chance drug cheats will be caught and punished. Clubs, players and coaches are already stamping their feet in fury, but this step will benefit the sport in the long term.

7. Get them a Kleenex

David Beckham – Left out of the England squad to face Germany in Wednesday's friendly, Beckham's international future is once again hanging in the balance.

• United States under-17 women's team – A goal deep into extra time allowed North Korea to win the U-17 Women's World Cup final, ending a brave run by the Americans. Kaz Tambi's youngsters still had plenty to be proud and proved the future of the women's game in the U.S. is in fine hands.

Real Salt Lake – The Utah club's dream of a spot in the MLS Cup final collapsed on home soil, as they struck the post three times before losing 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls.

8. Get ready to say hello to …

Mikael Silvestre. The former Manchester United and current Arsenal defender admitted last week that he would like to end his career in Major League Soccer.

However, Silvestre will be 33 by the time his current deal ends, raising doubts as to his suitability for a switch to the United States.

9. Get ready to say goodbye to …

Juan Pablo Angel. The New York Red Bulls striker has been a key part of his team's surge to the MLS Cup final and his efforts have captured the attention of his old club in Argentina, River Plate, which is prepared to do whatever it takes to entice the Colombian back to Buenos Aires.

10. Get excited about …

Chelsea is not the only club to have noticed Ezequiel Lavezzi, who is lighting it up for Napoli in Serie A. Lavezzi was called up by new Argentina coach Diego Maradona, and if he continues to perform at his current level, he will spark an energetic rush for his signature in January.

11. Why it's good to be a soccer player

Take a look at Ginna Gutierrez – wife of the Chicago Fire's Diego Gutierrez and his partner in the Nothing But Nets charity aimed at preventing malaria, the leading killer of children in Africa.

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