LIVERPOOL, England — One is the king of the assists, the visionary and orchestrator of perhaps the best club side to have ever played in England.

The other is plundering an improbable, potentially record-setting amount of goals, with a playing style that has evoked comparisons with Lionel Messi.

Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah are English soccer’s two standout stars this season, seemingly going head to head for the country’s Player of the Year award.

For many, it’s too close to call as to who has had the better season.

Maybe the next six days will settle the argument.

When Liverpool and City meet over two legs in the Champions League quarterfinals, De Bruyne and Salah are likely to be their teams’ inspirational figures, the players their teammates look to most for a moment of magic.

Cast-offs by Chelsea three or four years ago, their profiles have changed somewhat now.

Salah is the Premier League’s top scorer with 29 goals. In his first season at Liverpool since joining from Roma, the Egypt international has 37 goals in all competitions as well as nine assists. The close control, speed off the mark, and jinking, slaloming nature of his goals make him the nearest thing to Messi in world football.

“Unbelievable,” De Bruyne said Tuesday, the day before the first leg at Anfield. “I think to score that many goals in a season is unbelievable. Nobody expected him to hit the ground running. Liverpool are an attacking force, the players up front (Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane) play so well together and score so many goals. But the way he did it is unbelievable.”

Not that De Bruyne is faring too badly, himself.

With a Premier League-high 15 assists this season, the Belgium midfielder is held up as shining light in Guardiola’s team of superstars, the Spanish coach’s eyes and ears on the field.

Operating in a more withdrawn role in central midfield this season is getting the best out of De Bruyne thanks to his tireless running, vision and ability to control matches.

“It’s probably the most complete,” De Bruyne said, when asked to compare this season to others in his career. “The thing I am most happy about is that I can play almost every game, almost every minute without any problems and play at a level that is constantly good or high.”

The Player of the Year nominations have already been made, so what happens over the next week will have no bearing on that. De Bruyne has long been the favorite, especially since the winner often comes from the champion side, but Salah’s avalanche of goals — 20 in his last 20 matches since early December — have made him a live contender.

It is also the surprise factor with Salah. Few expected him to score so many goals following his return to the Premier League, particularly since he is not an out-and-out forward. He is used perfectly by Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp in a role that allows him to cut in from the right wing and often leave him as the player furthest forward, with Firmino dropping deep from his central-striker role.

“At Chelsea, he didn’t play too much but in Roma he was amazing — every game he created a lot of chances but sometimes missed,” Guardiola said Tuesday. “This season, the way Juergen Klopp wants to play is perfect for him. I think Juergen is a master at buying players he really needs for the way they want to play.

“The three in front, the way they play at certain balls, they are clinical. They punish you on your mistakes. They are so fast, so direct.”

Guardiola knows that all too well. Liverpool ended City’s chances of going through the Premier League unbeaten by winning 4-3 at Anfield in January. The Reds scored three times in a madcap nine-minute spell early in the second half, the pressing of the front three and midfield forcing unusual mistakes from City’s players.

“I know the way we play is perfect for Liverpool,” Guardiola said of his team’s expansive style, “because they’re a team that attack that space unlike any other team in the world, especially with Mo Salah, Firmino. I know that.

“But I feel the best way to try to win is what we have done here since we’ve been together.”

And nobody embodies that style of play like De Bruyne and David Silva, City’s dual playmakers in center midfield.

Silva was an unused substitute in the January game and City missed his composure. He will be there on Wednesday, although Guardiola said City will be without Sergio Aguero because the striker hasn’t recovered from a thigh injury in time.

It means De Bruyne and Silva will be feeding balls through to Gabriel Jesus instead of Aguero.

Guardiola insisted Tuesday that City wouldn’t change its attacking approach, but De Bruyne and Silva will have to be aware of their defensive responsibilities so the team isn’t left too vulnerable on the counterattack.

De Bruyne called it a “50-50” match. Liverpool, a five-time European champion, has the pedigree and history, while City has been far and away the best team in England this season.

Like the private battle between Salah and De Bruyne, this quarterfinal match is too close to call.


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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80