For journalist and professional footballers struggling to decide on who should be named the player of the season, tonight’s Champions League quarter-final between Liverpool and Manchester City, Mo Salah against Kevin de Bruyne, looks like the perfect opportunity to bite the bullet and make a final choice.
The Professional Footballers Association is due to name its short list soon, while the Football Writers Association traditionally announces its award in the week before the FA Cup final, and it will not be an easy selection.
You could consider almost the entire City side for inclusion alongside de Bruyne, with David Silva, Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling all able to make a strong case for inclusion. Even goalkeeper Edersen, for the impact he has made on a side which struggled defensively last year, deserves a mention, while Tottenham’s Harry Kane will inevitably feature in some people’s selections.
However, the two favourites, inevitably, will be de Bruyne and Salah for the impact they have made on their sides and on English football. Salah, remember, has scored a remarkable 37 goals in all competitions in his first season at Anfield, while de Bruyne tops the Premier League’s charts for assists, through-balls, and crosses.
What is remarkable, too, is the shared story of two players who only a few years ago must have felt like rejects at Chelsea, as manager Jose Mourinho decided they were not ready to make a serious impact on his Premier League champions.
They never actually played together, missing each other by a matter of days, as de Bruyne was sold to Wolfsburg on January 18, 2014, and Salah bought from Basel on January 26, but their experience of Stamford Bridge was painfully similar.
Salah made only six Premier League starts under Mourinho and scored only two goals in his Chelsea career, while de Bruyne fared worse: Two starts and no goals in two frustrating years; and yet now they face each other at Anfield as the two most praised, feared and lauded players in the Premier League.
What that says about the lack of patience in modern football — and about the ‘success right now’ nature of Mourinho’s psyche — is telling, because the Special One did not pull his punches when voicing his opinion of the pair.
“With De Bruyne, if you have a player knocking on your door and crying every day he wants to leave, you have to make a decision,” Mourinho said in 2014. “He was not ready to compete. He was an upset kid, his training was very bad.”
As for Salah, Mourinho welcomed him to the Bridge by saying: “He’s young, he’s fast, he’s creative, he’s enthusiastic, with the kind of humble personality on the pitch ready to work for the team.”
However, he quickly found opportunities, and compliments, hard to come by. Within months, the Special One suggested he needed another “six months to adapt to our game” and, by the following season, when he was criticised for failing to take his chance in a cup match against Shrewsbury, the writing was on the wall for Salah who was loaned out to Fiorentina and Roma and then eventually sold.
How things have changed. Salah’s performances this season have been of a level that even Cristiano Ronaldo failed to match in his early days at Manchester United, a Roy of the Rovers-worthy, unplayable goalscoring machine who has become a Kop legend in just nine months. He has been so good that Philippe Coutinho has not been missed and his value has soared from €40m to many times that amount.
If you are looking for pure football fantasy and all-out hero worship, then Salah should be the number one choice for Player or Footballer of the Year; a modern icon whose goals cannot even be replicated in a computer game, who writes stories that not even hardened Liverpool journalists who remember the good old days of the ’70s and ’80s can predict.
Then, you look at de Bruyne, who paints his football masterpieces with a much softer brush, and suddenly the size of the dilemma becomes clearer. For those who want artistry above glamour, classical ethereal harmony above the roar of heavy metal, then the Belgian is first choice. It can be argued, too, that his impact has been even greater than Salah, because his goals and assists are catapulting Manchester City towards an historic season, a league title won by a distance, and a possible three trophies in all.
“If I get it, it would be nice for the team and for me,” de Bruyne said. “I think there is almost no game where my standard has dropped, so I have been constant, and I am happy with myself, but Salah has a remarkable goal-scoring run, and he plays very well, like an inside forward type of role. This season, he has been incredible.”
Liverpool fans, on the back of that evidence, may argue that Salah has been the hero of the campaign, but for purists de Bruyne rises above that by conducting an orchestra at the Etihad which is creating football music many fans in England have never heard before.
Choosing between them will not be easy, whatever happens at Anfield tonight or in Manchester on April 10, but watching their respective auditions for the title should be a joy in itself. Unless, of course, you are Mourinho.
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