Stoichkov expects Mbappe and Dembele to succeed Messi, Ronaldo

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Former Barcelona star Hristo Stoichkov expects Lionel Messi and his Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo to continue dominating the Ballon d'Or landscape despite the pair approaching the twilight of their illustrious careers.

World football's biggest individual prize has been dominated by Messi and Ronaldo for the past decade, with the Argentine crowned as the best player in the world on five occasions, while Ronaldo has earned the accolade four times.

The last year in which neither superstar clinched the award was 2007, when Kaka was crowned the world's best player.

That period of dominance could be coming to a close in the years ahead, though, and Stoichkov tipped Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe and Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele as the prime candidates to challenge for the crown.

Speaking to Omnisport at the draw for the group stage of the 2018 World Cup, he said of Messi and Ronaldo: "There are some players behind them, such as Neymar or Luis Suarez, also some youngsters such as Mbappe or Dembele. And they will fight for it in the future."

But Stoichkov, who spent seven years in Catalonia over two different spells with the club, does not think anyone will surpass the two best players in the world while they continue to play at the highest level.

"While Messi and Cristiano keep playing, the others will just fight for the third or fourth position," he added.

Ronaldo is tipped as the favourite to retain the Ballon d'Or in the 2017 award ceremony next week but, following a slow start to the season with Madrid, the Euro 2016 winner may struggle to achieve similar success in 2018, given Stoichkov has overlooked

European champions Portugal in his predictions for the World Cup.

"The team who has the better preparation and motivation is going to win it," he said.

"Spain, Germany, France, Brazil and Argentina will fight for it. Then, it depends on the group stage and the knock-out games."

Messi's Argentina were handed an intriguing group in Friday's draw, alongside Nigeria, Iceland and Croatia.

Portugal, with Ronaldo in their ranks, face a challenging opening game in Group B against neighbours Spain, followed by matches against Iran and Morocco.