Liverpool (AFP) – Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne admitted his rival for the Premier League player of the year award Mohamed Salah has surprised him with his stunning goalscoring form this season.
The two go head-to-head on Wednesday when Salah’s Liverpool host City at Anfield for the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.
De Bruyne has been City’s key creative weapon on their march towards the Premier League title that could be sealed with victory over Manchester United on Saturday.
But Salah’s total of 37 goals in 42 appearances this season threatens to deprive De Bruyne of individual honours to go with City’s trophy haul.
“I think to score that many goals in a season is unbelievable,” said the Belgian. “I think nobody expected it, but he hit the ground running.”
Had things worked out differently De Bruyne and Salah could have been teammates.
However, both were discarded by Chelsea earlier in their careers after failing to hold down a regular spot in the first team.
City manager Pep Guardiola, though, believes all that was lacking from Salah’s game before this season was a clinical touch in front of goal which he has found under Jurgen Klopp.
“In Chelsea he didn’t play too much, but in Roma he was amazing,” said Guardiola.
“Every game he create a lot of chances but sometimes (he) missed. This season I think the way Jurgen Klopp wants to play is perfect for him.
“I think Jurgen is a master to buy players with what he really needs for the way he wants to play.”
– Fearsome front three –
Salah has formed a fearsome front three with Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane with the trio already combining for 75 goals.
And City know all too well the havoc they can cause as all three were on target in City’s only league defeat of the season so far as Liverpool ran out 4-3 winners at Anfield in January.
“The three in front, the way they play, they are so clinical,” added Guardiola. “They punish you in your mistakes because they are so fast, so direct and that’s a good challenge for us.”
With City just needing one win from their last seven league games and having already bagged the League Cup this season, Liverpool defender Andrew Robertson claimed Guardiola’s side are expected to deliver once more.
However, De Bruyne shrugged off the added pressure of being favourites.
“If you look at the season until now, maybe it is normal we are favourites. But it is a different competition, it’s a Cup game and everybody is strong.”
With Sergio Aguero absent through injury, Guardiola is set to name a front three with an average age of just 22 in Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane.
And Guardiola believes he will learn whether his side can overcome a lack of experience in the Champions League knockout stage compared to some of Europe’s giants in the rarefied air of Anfield on a European night.
“The level of the quarter-finals is a mountain and it depends if you can overcome that situation or not, knowing of course the opponent is one of the toughest in the world,” added the Catalan.
“What I admire most of the important teams is that in this kind of situation, knockout games, in the bad moments they are calm…because they know their chance is coming and when it comes they are not going to miss.
“That is the big difference. Our strikers are 20, 21-years-old and maybe we need more time, but that’s why it is fantastic to see.”