In amongst the countless sub-plots in the build up to Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final tie with Manchester City, a battle was set to spark between the two clubs’ star men.
Kevin De Bruyne has led Manchester City magnificently this season, as they march towards a dominant Premier League title victory to add to their rampant League Cup win over Arsenal.
Meanwhile, Mohamed Salah has undoubtedly been Liverpool’s best player in his debut campaign. The Egyptian’s arrival at Anfield was greeted warmly, but not with the excitement and expectation that follows the signing of a world-class player.
Salah was expected to contribute to the Reds’ already stellar attack, another rapid attacker to play alongside Sadio Mane and to act as a badly needed alternative to the Senegalese, who was Liverpool’s main man in the previous season.
No one, not Jurgen Klopp, nor even Salah himself, could anticipate the year ahead for the 25-year-old, who has become the complete forward in Liverpool red.
In the opening months of the season, Salah’s speed, talent and skill made it obvious that he was more than a tricky winger, but he was inconsistent with his finishing. Despite scoring into double figures during that time, incredibly Salah could have doubled his tally if he was as efficient in front of goal as he and his teammates were at creating chances in this Liverpool side.
His finishing is not a problem now.
Salah has scored in every game he has started at Anfield since the 5-0 thrashing of Swansea City on Boxing Day. He has raised his level to an even higher standard since the turn of the year, which was already extraordinary in 2017, especially for a player getting to grips with a new team and manager.
Even the Premier League would have been mostly an unknown quantity to Salah, as he barely had minutes during his first spell in England with Chelsea, meaning he arrived at Anfield last summer with unfinished business.
With 39 goals and 11 assists in 44 games, Salah’s statistics alone justifies a clean sweep of the player of the year awards for the ‘Egyptian King’. Yet the context matters so much as well.
Aside from the 2017/18 season being Salah’s first at Liverpool, and all of the adjustment that comes with such a big move, his positional change and flexibility have become huge assets not only in Salah’s armoury against defenders, but also for Klopp’s tactics.
Playing closer to the goal instead of remaining out wide has allowed Salah to link up with Roberto Firmino in particular to devastating effect, as the likes of Southampton will testify.
Moreover, Salah’s work rate and willingness to stretch defences and run into channels – allied with his pace – makes him a nightmare for centre-backs and full-backs alike.
Salah was moved into the centre on Tuesday night in Liverpool’s eventual 2-1 second-leg victory over Manchester City, as Klopp shifted his tactics to improve Liverpool defensively, with Firmino and Mane dropping deeper to help the midfield combat Pep Guardiola’s mass of attackers, but leaving Salah up top as an extremely quick outlet.
The change in positioning certainly helped in the second half, as Salah latched onto the ball, following Mane’s mazy run into the Manchester City penalty area, and scored a delicate chip over Ederson to settle the quarter-final clash in Liverpool’s favour.
There and then, Salah underlined both his quality and confidence, ensuring Liverpool’s progression into the semi-finals of the Champions League in such deadly and emphatic fashion. If he continues to inspire Liverpool in Europe, a Champions League medal and possible Ballon d’Or nomination could be heading his way.
By contrast, De Bruyne’s form has slipped in the second half of the season, with Manchester City gradually following suit. Such were the truly exceptional standards that both City and De Bruyne set in the first half of the season, no one could imagine anyone other than the brilliant Belgian winning the player of the year awards in England, as City strode off into the distance in the Premier League.
No one has more assists than De Bruyne this season, and he has dominated the majority of Manchester City’s victories from midfield, utilising every kind of pass you can think of and those you can only dream of, and applying them in a clinical and relentless fashion. Consequently, City have racked up the goals in a potentially record-breaking league campaign.
However, De Bruyne himself has struggled to find the net, with only eleven goals this season and none since January. The 26-year-old appears to be increasingly leg-weary, matching the rest of his team, as City’s incredible efforts in the first two-thirds of the season now seems to be taking its toll, to the cost of their Champions League hopes.
Salah instead has only grown stronger as the season has gone on, and his consistent improvement and goalscoring has seen the momentum for the end-of-season awards swing away from De Bruyne and towards Liverpool’s latest attacking sensation.
Plenty of great attackers have graced Anfield in Liverpool’s history, but none have set such a striking standard so early into their spells with the club.
Comparisons with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are premature – Salah has to replicate this form for season after season, and would still likely be a long way off the individual achievements of the Argentinian and Portuguese superstars. Even De Bruyne has produced his brilliant best for nearly three years in a City shirt.
However, for this season alone, no one, at home or abroad, can claim to have markedly bettered Salah’s goals and performances since he has arrived at Liverpool. Despite the excellence of De Bruyne, Salah deserves to be crowned as the best player in England.