LONDON: Had their first experiences in English football gone as they would have wished, Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne could have been teammates rather than on a collision course for Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final clash between Liverpool and Manchester City.
How Chelsea fans must wish they had remained on the same side. Instead, neither player’s style suited Jose Mourinho’s physical approach and were sent through Stamford Bridge’s revolving door for talented midfield players at the time having made just a combined 16 league appearances.
Both sales have come back to haunt Chelsea, who now look set to miss out on a place in the Champions League next season whilst De Bruyne orchestrates City’s relentless march towards the title, and Salah’s stunning scoring streak has Liverpool well on course for a place in the Premier League’s top four.
They are also engaged in a personal duel for Premier League player of the year prizes as the two outstanding players in the division.
De Bruyne has the advantage of being at the heart of a machine-like City side now just one win away from winning the Premier League in record quick time.
However, he is the principal architect on the field of Pep Guardiola’s vision to not just win, but to do so in style.
“He is the best example and he helps us to be a better club, a better institution for the future,” gushed Guardiola when speaking of his admiration for the Belgian.
Liverpool know only too well of the danger posed by De Bruyne’s passing range as his two assists cut the visitors open in a 5-0 City rout when the sides first met this season in September in a display that saw Guardiola label him the “complete player”.
– Salah a ‘proper striker’ –
Salah was substituted at half-time that day in a match marred by a first-half red card for Sadio Mane.
However, it was one of very few ineffectual performances this season by the Egyptian who has scored 37 goals in all competitions.
One of those came as Liverpool inflicted City’s only league defeat of the season in a thrilling 4-3 victory in January to heighten anticipation there will be goals galore in both legs between the sides in the next week.
“That makes him a proper striker. If you only score on the perfect day you cannot score 29 (Premier League) goals,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, after Salah shrugged off a quiet first 84 minutes to score the winner at Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Salah is on course to break Liverpool’s all-time single-season scoring mark of 47 set by Ian Rush in 1983-84.
However, whilst Rush’s goals contributed to winning the European Cup, Premier League and League Cup, Salah will go without silverware unless City are slayed on the route to Liverpool’s sixth European crown.
“When I scored 47 goals we won the European Cup,” said Rush last week. “We won three trophies that season and that’s what we’ve got to start doing now.”
Rush also claimed he had only seen five-time Ballon d’Or winners Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo reach the level showed by Salah in scoring four and setting up the other goal in a 5-0 thrashing of Watford earlier this month.
Despite his admiration for De Bruyne, Guardiola has been cautious not to make any comparisons to Messi having seen the Argentine up close in four glorious years together at Barcelona.
However, Guardiola’s all-conquering Bayern Munich sides on the domestic front came unstuck when faced with Ronaldo’s Real Madrid in 2014 and Messi at the Camp Nou a year later.
Liverpool are likely to need something similar from Salah to derail a City side that has so far proved far too good for anyone in England.