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.

But.

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?

Challenging for the title? No chance. Last eight of the Champions League, having beaten Paris Saint-GermainNapoli 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.

Sorry, Raheem.

Football

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