The very best players grace the very biggest games. It’s a sentiment that will be reflected in the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool on May 28.

By most bookmakers’ estimations, the top three Ballon d'Or favourites will all take to the field at the Stade de France as Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane battle it out with Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema for glory.

For all three players it would represent a huge opportunity to win the coveted golden ball, organised by magazine France Football and voted on by 100 journalists worldwide from a shortlist of 30 players.

None of Benzema, Salah or Mane have ever finished in the top three of voting for a Ballon d’Or. But with the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo stranglehold finally appearing to be over and the new rules that a Ballon d’Or will consider a player’s performances over a season and not a calendar year, the stars look set to align for one of the three men.

And while individual glories pale in comparison to lifting the Champions League, all three will be desperate to leave a lasting impact on the biggest game in European football and produce a performance that will give the voters something to think about ahead of the ceremony in October.

The most compelling case for the award is Benzema. The Frenchman can be found at 1/3 on with some bookmakers after a season in which Real Madrid reclaimed the La Liga title and made the Champions League final.

Yet it’s Benzema’s individual achievements that have propelled him to the very top of the rankings. The veteran striker has scored 44 goals in 45 appearances in all competitions in 2021/22. For context, Vinicius Junior is second on the list for Real this term with 21, less than half the total of his team-mate in white.

Benzema’s brilliance has been the deciding factor in Real’s success time and time again too, with big goal after big goal scored to rescue the Spanish giants when they’ve needed him most.

This is most evident in the Champions League where Benzema has produced a run of second-leg knockout performances like no other. In the last 16 second leg, Real trailed 2-0 to Paris Saint-Germain on aggregate until just past the hour mark. Benzema netted three times in 17 minutes to turn the tie on its head.

Karim Benzema has rescued Real Madrid time and time again this season in the Champions League.
Karim Benzema has rescued Real Madrid time and time again this season in the Champions League.

A hat-trick in the first leg of the quarter-final against defending European champions Chelsea set Real on their way, but when The Blues netted three times in response in the return fixture it looked set to be curtains for Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

Cue a fightback from Real with Benzema of course scoring the decisive goal to see the Spaniards through to the semi-finals. There came the sternest test of all, as Real met Manchester City and were outplayed in a 4-3 thriller at the Etihad only for Benzema’s brace to keep them in the tie.

That was enough for Real and at the Bernabeu they stunned City with a late turnaround capped by a Benzema penalty to clinch the victory and a place in Paris.

What’s more impressive is that Benzema is doing all this, and playing his best football, at the age of 34. During that purple patch he became the oldest player to score a Champions League hat-trick and only the fourth ever to score back-to-back trebles in the competition. As his manager Ancelotti quipped: “Benzema gets better every day, like wine."

Pick your Champions League Immortals now

The hat-trick at Stamford Bridge was his 13th goal in a seven-game run in which Benzema scored all but six of Real Madrid’s goals in La Liga and the Champions League.

While the award is for a single season only, the world’s journalists will be hard-pressed to find a more persuasive narrative than Benzema’s overall career arc.

For so long the perfect foil for Ronaldo at Real, Benzema has spectacularly stepped out of the Portuguese superstar’s shadow and into the leading role for Ancelotti’s side. It begs the question of just how much Benzema was sacrificing for the team while Ronaldo was in the Spanish capital.

Benzema’s long absence from the France national team also came to an end last summer at Euro 2020, in which he was a shining light for Didier Deschamps’ world champions.

“I’ll stop believing in the Ballon d’Or if Benzema doesn’t win it,” former Real midfielder Guti put it simply. And Benzema found an unlikely supporter in Barcelona’s Dani Alves, who insisted the France striker has “everything to win” the individual accolade.

Meanwhile, such is the success of Liverpool, who are aiming to clinch a remarkable trophy treble in Paris, that multiple players were always going to be in the running for glory.

Salah is rated at anywhere from 5/1 to 10/1 to scoop the gong in October after another sensational season for Jurgen Klopp’s side.

Already a two-time FWA Footballer of the Year, a three-time Premier League Golden Boot winner, a two-time African Footballer of the Year and a former Premier League Player of the Season, Salah’s brilliance has continued into this term to such an extent that he now has perhaps his best shout yet of taking home the golden ball for the first time.

The 29-year-old finished tied with Tottenham's Son Heung-min in the Premier League Golden Boot race on 23 strikes and has struck some of Liverpool’s most crucial goals as they chase glory on all bar one front.

In a run of 12 games in all competitions to begin the 2021/22 season, Salah scored 15 times including a hat-trick in a 5-0 demolition of rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford.

A wonderful solo effort against defending champions Manchester City during that run, in which Salah dumbfounded the visiting defence before finishing in style, encapsulated his confidence while a similarly remarkable run and strike against Watford drew further acclaim.

Salah himself admitted he couldn’t decide which goal was better in the post-match interview after the Watford game while Klopp simply asked: “Come on, who is better than Salah right now?”

The Egyptian’s run of outstanding goalscoring form to start the campaign left many reshuffling the hierarchy of Europe’s finest forwards. “Without the era of Messi and Ronaldo, how would we think of Salah now?” asked BBC’s Pat Nevin.

“He’s the closest player I’ve seen to Messi,” was Neil Lennon’s verdict while former Ballon d’Or winner Rivaldo talked up the Liverpool forward’s prospects, saying he deserves to be among the contenders this season.

In total, the former Chelsea man has scored 31 goals in all competitions while weighing in with an impressive 15 assists, demonstrating how effectively he links with Mane, Diogo Jota, Luiz Diaz and Roberto Firmino up front for Liverpool.

The 29-year-old also led his country to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon this winter, though he ultimately missed the decisive penalty in the shootout defeat to Senegal. The move from calendar year to season may help Salah’s case though, with Egypt failing to qualify for Qatar 2022.

Mohamed Salah is second-favourite to win his first Ballon d'Or
Mohamed Salah is second-favourite to win his first Ballon d'Or

Salah’s long-time Liverpool team-mate Mane is third-longest in the odds for a Ballon d’Or at 12/1 due to his prominent role in Liverpool’s quadruple charge.

The 30-year-old has netted 23 times in 50 appearances in all competitions including a goal in each leg of the Champions League semi-final win over Villarreal and a brace in the 3-2 FA Cup semi-final victory against Manchester City.

But it’s Mane’s achievements for his country that have seen him lifted into contention for this year’s Ballon d’Or. The forward played a key role in Senegal’s successful Africa Cup of Nations campaign and won the Player of the Tournament award in Cameroon.

Mane scored three times and netted the winning penalty in the shootout win over Salah’s Egypt as Senegal were crowned kings of Africa for the first time in their history.

The issue for both the Liverpool stars is they will no doubt take votes off one another, likely freeing the way for Benzema to scoop the ultimate prize.

Should any of the three contenders claim the prize, it would be only the second time since 2007 that Ronaldo or Messi has not won the award after Luka Modric’s success in 2018. The era of dominance for two of football’s greatest finally looks to be at an end.

It opens the door for a new, exciting horizon for the award with more contenders looking set to battle for the highest individual accolade in the sport.

All three are set to feature in the greatest game in European club football, the Champions League final, at Paris’ Stade de France on May 28. And the only place to watch the action is on BT Sport.