Some think it’s Mohamed Salah, others Sadio Mane. It’s neither. When Liverpool host Chelsea in today’s super weekend’s fixture, the show will be about Premier League’s two most technically gifted number 10s; Phillipe Coutinho and Eden Hazard.
Real Madrid thinks it’s the Belgian, while FC Barcelona will break the bank for the Brazilian. That’s the sort of endorsement the talent of the two super stars have beyond the Premiership.
Hazard ‘s direct style often leaves spectators breathless. Everything he does is at the speed of a Ferrari. Electric dribbling, lightning defts and turns. When he drops a shoulder and slaloms past defenders, he leaves no trail. No shadows. Out of sight as soon as he makes a yard on an opponent. All this with amazing balance, exquisite ball control and an irritating arrogance about him.
On the way to the title last season, Hazard was the club’s second top scorer with 16 goals – his highest ever goals tally in a season – while he was also the Footballer of the year in the 2014-15 season where he scored 14 goals. Against West Bromwich last weekend he was ruthless and clinical.
Three goals, one assist so far. Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher described him this week as the ‘best no.10 in the league by a mile.’ The downside to his game however, puts Carragher’s claim to the test. For a number 10, Hazard is not a known goals creator, assists provider or play maker. He is single minded and one dimensional, always going for glory even when the alternatives are better positioned.
After 12 games this season, he has just one assist and 36 assists over the last six seasons which is an average of six assists per season. Despite not being a prolific goal scorer, he’s done enough over the seasons to prove he is a match winner. A big game player. A game changer. With his power, speed and directness, the Liverpool backline will face a nightmare.
In Coutinho however, the Merseysiders have a play maker whose entertainment value shades Hazard’s edge-on-the-seat directness. An old school romantic whose guile, poise, craftsmanship and oratory skills make him a fine piece of art in motion. True to the Brazilian tradition, everything Coutinho does with the ball is jaw dropping. Flair and invention are his brand. His personality is not as imposing as Hazard’s, but his influence on the flow of the game and style of football is. His vision is second to none in the Premiership and his eye for a pass reminds one of Zinedine Zidane in his prime.
Coutinho is the reason why Sadio Mane, Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino have formed the deadliest attacking quartet in European football. His quickness of thought, and inventive flair give each of Mane, Salah and Firmino unlimited freedom of movement and incisive runs behind defences. On the ball, he has incredible shooting technique. No Premier League player has scored more goals from outside the box as the little Brazilian. A dead ball specialist, a trickster. On his day, his flair can make the birds sing.
He was Liverpool’s top scorer last season with 13 goals and also their top assists provider. He always is. When Coutinho is on form, Liverpool are a dream. Unstoppable going forward. To frustrate Liverpool, curtail Coutinho’s movement and possession. He is the conductor of the orchestra. As effective in small pockets as he is in acres of space. Only Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva come close when it comes to play making.
Hazard’s supporting cast will include Alvaro Morata, Cesc Fabregas, Marcos Alonso, Pedro and of course, iron-man N’Golo Kante. Coutinho’s back up, is more scary. Mane, Salah, Firmino and possibly, Adam Lallana if he returns today. Against Manchester United, Chelsea showed they have bottle for a fight. Against Liverpool, they will be advised not to just fight but to compete in ball usage if they want a result. Liverpool’s attacking verve at home can be awesome and irresistible. So good, it’s hard to predict who of Mane, Salah, Firmino or Coutinho will steal the day’s headlines on a particular day. They are all in peerless form at the moment.
Ex-Chelsea player Salah, has shown at Liverpool already that he was pushed out too soon on his way to Roma. He has been Liverpool’s most impactful player so far this season, the league’s top scorer with nine goals and remains enigmatic. His game reading, technique and positioning have made him the most elusive winger in the league. He has a point to prove against Chelsea. It’s the platform he needs to confirm to the Premiership that he isn’t a false dawn.
A fascinating encounter is on the cards but the case for Coutinho or Hazard is staggering.