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Monday, December 20, 2010
Updated: January 7, 8:17 AM ET
Decision Day approaches

By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com

Xavi, Messi & Iniesta
Down to three: On Monday, we'll learn who wins the FIFA Ballon d'Or World Player of the Year.

Monday will be a historic day in soccer. That's when the first-ever FIFA Ballon d'Or World Player of the Year award will be handed out. Previously, there was a FIFA World Player of the Year award and a Ballon d'Or European Player of the Year. But the two accolades were merged in July in order to crown an undisputed king.

So who was the crème de le crème of 2010? The three finalists -- Barcelona's Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta -- illustrate both the dominance of the Blaugranas and their La Masia academy, where the three players honed their craft. Of course, some argue that the Barca-mania has caused others, such as Inter Milan's treble-winning and World Cup finalist Wesley Sneijder, to be overlooked.

That said, as we approach Decision Day, it's time to examine the strength of each case -- keeping in mind that there are no concrete criteria for the award, which will be decided by votes from national team coaches and captains, as well as journalists.

The case for Andres Iniesta (Barcelona/Spain): Iniesta was one of the best players for Spain this summer. He helped lead his country to its first-ever World Cup title and did nothing less than score the Cup-winning goal four minutes before the final was to go to penalties. This beautiful and skillful game winner concluded a tournament in which he also made the all-star team and snapped up three man-of-the-match awards, including in the final. Padding Iniesta's résumé was another raucous campaign with Barcelona, winning the Primera Division and the Spanish Super Cup.

In 2009, Iniesta came in fifth for the FIFA World Player of the Year and was short-listed for the Ballon d'Or.

The case against Iniesta: Although a few consider him a favorite, the biggest strikes against him are Messi and Xavi. Superb as The Illusionist's 2010 was, it played out mostly in the shadow of his peers. Another strike against him is his having missed the business end of the 2009-10 season; he was out from the middle of April until the start of the World Cup with a torn muscle in his calf. And, although it's nitpicky to point it out, he played sporadically before that because of other minor injuries.

The case for Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona/Spain): Under the tutelage of another great Barcelona orchestrator -- his coach, Pep Guardiola -- Xavi has elevated his game from world-class into the-best-of-all-time discussion. He is the greatest central midfielder and distributor of the ball in his era. In South Africa, he completed no fewer than 599 of his 669 passes -- 89 percent. He shuns the spectacular in favor of the reliable -- playing only tight, short passes and the odd through ball -- and is the brains behind everything Spain and Barcelona have achieved in the past years. That includes the same hardware Iniesta won, which is the trouble with having to select the year's best player from three club teammates. Xavi, too, was an all-star at the World Cup, gaining two man-of-the-match awards.

In 2009, he came in third for both the Ballon d'Or and World Player of the Year. He might well improve on that this year.

The case against Xavi: Efficient as Xavi may be on offense, his positioning on the field sometimes proves a liability on defense. Although Guardiola unfailingly posts a bruising holding midfielder behind Xavi and Iniesta -- usually Sergio Busquets, sometimes Javier Mascherano -- clever opponents know to sit in the gap Xavi leaves behind him on counterattacks, exploiting Barcelona's lone weakness. That's how Inter Milan knocked the club out of the 2009-10 Champions League in the semifinals. And Xavi was partially to blame for his club's failure to defend its European title.

The case for Lionel Messi (Barcelona/Argentina): Messi has to be the favorite for this award. Without a doubt, he is the world's most skilled and spectacular player. In yet another sterling year with Barcelona, he has put to bed any debates over the possible superiority of Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. With his torrid form of late, Messi might have additional momentum heading into the voting. Not that he needs it. He won both the Ballon d'Or (which was voted on by journalists) and the FIFA World Player of the Year (then decided by coaches and captains) last year. In 2007 and 2008, he was the runner-up for the FIFA Player of the Year and came in third and second, respectively, for the Ballon d'Or. He finished the 2009-10 season with 47 goals and 13 assists in all competitions (at one time scoring 11 goals in five games and getting four in a 4-1 come-from-behind Champions League quarterfinal win over Arsenal), and already has 27 goals and 14 assists in all competitions in the 2010-11 season. Messi also set a Primera Division record by scoring 42 goals in 36 games in the 2010 calendar year, breaking Mariano Martin's 1943 record of 38 goals.

The case against Messi: This is a tough one. You could argue that Messi isn't quite as efficient as Xavi. But probably the biggest knock on Messi's résumé is that, unlike Xavi and Iniesta, he is not a world champion, since his campaign with Argentina ended in the quarterfinals. While Messi was solid in the tournament, his performance didn't come near his Barcelona form, adding leverage to the argument that he's not as good for Argentina as he is with his cozy Catalan supporting cast. He didn't make the all-star team at the World Cup, either.

This race between the finalists might boil down to a philosophical question: Without the brains, does the foot score the goal? Similarly, would Messi have scored all the goals he did in 2010 without Xavi and Iniesta's plum service? Without Xavi and Iniesta, as evidenced at the World Cup, the Messi magic dissipates. Conversely, what would become of those killer through balls by Xavi if Messi weren't there to capitalize on them?

Ultimately, we have to ask: Does the award go to the spectacularly good (Messi) or the most efficiently good (Xavi or Iniesta)? If the track record of the two unified awards is any indicator, put your money on the very spectacular beating out the very efficient.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.