Will it be Liverpool’s defensive lynchpin or Manchester City’s attacking dynamo who is ultimately recognised as the Premier League’s best this season?
Premier League footballers up and down England are currently casting their votes for this season’s Player of the Year.
Eight of the top 10 favourites for the award play for either Manchester City or Liverpool, with three more City players occupying 11th, 12th and 13th place.
Yet much like last year, when Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah pulled away, two clear favourites have emerged, one on either side of the divide.
Virgil van Dijk has had an excellent season for Liverpool, and there is a legitimate argument to be made that without the Dutchman the Reds would not be in the title race at all.
And while City do not rely quite so heavily on any one player, Sterling has emerged as an especially key man for Pep Guardiola’s side this season, and he has impressed many with his off-field conduct and by speaking up against racism.
The winner will be announced later in April, but for now our Liverpool and City correspondents have gone head-to-head to give their verdicts…
Just as it was last year, the PFA Player of the Year award looks to be a straight shootout between Liverpool and Manchester City. This time around, though, it is surely a more clear-cut affair?
Sure, a case can be made for Raheem Sterling. A compelling one, too. The way he has developed into an elite attacking player under Pep Guardiola has been impressive to watch, even for Liverpool supporters who always knew the England international had vast potential, but wondered if he would ever add consistency and penalty-box instinct to his game.
Sterling has had another wonderful season, and if City are to win two, three or even four trophies, then he will have played his part, no doubt.
Ask yourselves this: if Sterling had played half the games he has played this season, or even none of them, where would City be?
About where they are now, I’d say; challenging for the title, advancing in the cups.
Sterling has scored some important goals and delivered some excellent performances, but without him Guardiola’s side would have chugged on regardless. Leroy Sane would have picked up the slack, or Riyad Mahrez. Or Gabriel Jesus. Or Bernardo Silva.
You get the point.
Now ask the same question of Liverpool. Where would they be this season without Virgil van Dijk?
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Challenging for the title? No chance. Last eight of the Champions League, having beaten Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli and Bayern Munich along the way? Unlikely.
Van Dijk, quite simply, is the most influential player in the Premier League. He walked through the door at Anfield 15 months ago and everything changed. Liverpool went from a cup team to a proper team.
Who would have thought Jurgen Klopp would ever be able to build a title challenge based on the league’s meanest defence? But he has. Liverpool have conceded 19 goals in 32 league games. Remarkable. They’ve conceded more than one goal in just three games.
They’ve had defensive problems, too. Trent Alexander-Arnold has missed games. Joe Gomez hasn’t played since December. Joel Matip broke his collarbone and missed six weeks. Dejan Lovren’s hamstrings have been an issue.
Van Dijk has been the constant. He’s the only outfielder to start every Premier League game for Liverpool. They simply can’t do without him.
He might be the best defensive header of a ball the Premier League has ever seen, utterly dominant in the air. In possession, he is composure personified. He looks, as one fan put it, like he could play three games at once. His long, raking diagonals are a thing of beauty.
He’s made a couple of mistakes – he brought down Sane for a penalty at Anfield and contributed to Fulham’s equaliser recently – but they have been few and far between. Generally, his performances have been exceptional, his mere presence giving Liverpool the look and feel of a proper, top-level team.
With Van Dijk, Klopp knows he has a chance of winning any game. There can be only one winner of this year’s PFA award.
It is a little strange that the race for Player of the Year is being pitched as a battle between Van Dijk and Sterling, given many Manchester City fans will tell you Bernardo Silva has been their stand-out performer this season.
Bernardo has become a beloved and integral member of Pep Guardiola’s squad and, as City push for the quadruple, he will he called upon for every big match, whether in midfield or the front three.
Sterling has been every bit as important, especially so in recent weeks, and he will also be on the team sheet when it comes to City’s must-win games in the three major competitions they are still vying to win.
And the fact that they are indeed still in every competition is another nod to City’s position as the best and most consistent team in England.
City won’t be able to get 100 points this season but they are a better team overall, and Sterling is one of several players who have improved individually.
He has taken his game to another level this season and that has been made obvious in recent weeks, with hat-tricks for both City and England.
The 24-year-old has scored 19 goals and laid on 16 assists in all competitions this season, and has at least nine games to surpass last season’s tally of 23 goals and 17 assists.
Sterling was beaten to the young player of the year award by Leroy Sane last season, despite the fact that he was probably a more consistent performer than his team-mate. And this season he has proven even more consistent a threat, always giving a sense that he is ready to contribute when it really matters.
There was frustration last season, for example, that he would often miss one-on-one chances, but his finishing has improved markedly in recent months and so often he has stepped up when City really need him.
But as much as all of the on-pitch improvement and maturity, he has appeared to have grown off the pitch, too.
Talk of any roads to redemption is wide of the mark, given he never hugely misbehaved in the first place, but he has certainly taken on more responsibility of late, and he has in many ways become a role model.
Perhaps he does not welcome that kind of talk, but by taking a lead role in the fight against racism he has encouraged others to speak out, and many more to think more carefully about their actions.
By highlighting a difference in the tone of media reporting when white and black players are the subject of stories in the wake of an alleged racist incident at Chelsea in December, he helped to highlight an issue with subconscious, or perhaps even overt, discrimination in the national press.
That brought public attention to a debate that many people had been having online, and since then he has not shied away from similar issues; just this week his social media response to Leonardo Bonucci’s reaction to the racist abuse suffered by Moise Kean may well have empowered other players to make their voices heard, given the number of current and former pros doing likewise.
Sterling is an example of hard work on the pitch and bravery off it. That should be recognised and rewarded.