At long last, this was to be the year that Robert Lewandowski stepped out of the shadow and into the light.
Since 2008, only Luka Modric has broken the stranglehold of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on football’s biggest individual prize.
Lewandowski’s status as a modern great is already secure, and yet a place in the top three of the Ballon d’Or has eluded him. Until this year.
As Bayern Munich cantered to another domestic double, Lewandowski hit new heights: no one in Europe can match his 53 goals in all competitions. No one stood in his way.
Except the organisers, that is. Last month they cancelled the 2020 Ballon d’Or due to the pandemic. It was a cruel blow, even if Lewandowski insisted: ‘The Ballon d’Or is no theme in my life because we have the Champions League, we have so many games until the end of the year and this is more important.’
On Friday night he has another chance to prove he belongs on top of the world. Victory in Lisbon would keep Lewandowski on course for another big prize that has long escaped his grasp: the Champions League.
Barcelona stand between Bayern Munich and the last four in a clash of European powerhouses. Opposite Lewandowski will be Messi – last year’s Ballon d’Or winner, a four-time European champion and perhaps his closest rival this season.
As chaos and civil war have engulfed the Nou Camp, Messi’s genius barely wavered. Even as Barcelona surrendered supremacy in La Liga to Real Madrid, Messi amassed 31 goals and 26 assists. ‘Messi faces his successor as the best player in the world – Robert Lewandowski,’ Bayern icon Lothar Matthaus said this week. ‘He is the best player, not just the best forward.’
Whoever you prefer, it’s a mouthwatering match-up for everyone – perhaps with the exception of Jerome Boateng.
The last time these two sides met in the Champions League, in the 2014-15 semi-finals, Messi bamboozled the defender during a 3-0 first-leg victory.
In a snapshot of his genius, Messi shuffled inside and out, leaving Boateng in a heap before finishing beyond goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
After that 5-3 aggregate win, Barcelona beat Juventus in the final. On each of the four occasions when Bayern and Barcelona have met in European knockout stages, the winner has gone on to lift the trophy.
You wouldn’t bet against that continuing this season. No one else left in the competition has ever won the Champions League. These two giants remain in the hunt for title No 6 despite mid-season turbulence. At Munich, manager Hansi Flick replaced Niko Kovac in November, while at the Nou Camp, Quique Setien took over from Ernesto Valverde in January.
Bayern have grown into a supreme force under their new boss, winning all eight of their European games and demolishing Chelsea in their last-16 tie. Setien, meanwhile, appears to be a dead man walking already.
While Barcelona have stuttered in spite of Messi’s brilliance, Bayern’s excellent season has been built on Lewandowski.
He has found the net in all seven of his European appearances this year and his unrivalled tally of 13 includes a 14-minute quadruple at Red Star Belgrade in November.
But it is on nights like this that Lewandowski’s legend will be cemented. He was on the losing side when Bayern beat Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 final at Wembley.
Victory over Messi and Co would take him one step closer to filling that hole in his trophy cabinet – even if the Ballon d’Or remains out of reach for another year at least.