Manchester City and Aston Villa would have faced each other on the opening weekend of this Premier League campaign had Pep Guardiola’s side not reached the final stages of the Champions League in Lisbon and earned an extra week to recuperate.
Plenty of what’s happened since then – for both of these clubs and throughout the division – would have been impossible to predict, with a strange season springing surprises at every turn.
However, had City and Villa played one another in September, most observers would have confidently looked towards Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish to supply the creative inspiration for their respective teams.
It is safe to say each star midfielder has lived up to his billing over the first half of the campaign.
Grealish earned a long-awaited England debut earlier this season and was a bright spark when England suffered a 2-0 Nations League defeat in Belgium.
Before the match, the 25-year-old revealed he spent his final preparations casting an admiring eye over a certain member of the opposition.
“For the past 24 hours, I’ve been watching little clips of my favourite players like I do before every game,” he told Sky Sports.
“I watch loads of clips. I watch clips of De Bruyne, I watch clips of [Philippe] Coutinho, just players that are in my position, really.
“That’s what I’ve done since I was a little kid and I still do it to this day – I have no shame in saying that and that’s what gets me going for football matches.”
After the match, De Bruyne conceded Grealish had also captured his attention.
“I rate him very highly,” he said. “He’s somebody I mentioned before, talking to the team-mates at City, in a random conversation.
“In England they talked about creative problems in midfield, but he brings that to a team. He deserves a shot.”
Those warm words from De Bruyne seemed to carry a little more weight when a move for Grealish was rumoured to be one of the topics of discussion during Guardiola’s successful contract extension negotiations in November.
Given the City boss already must try to accommodate the playmaking talents of Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva around De Bruyne, it is questionable whether he needs such a reinforcement in his creative department.
However, Opta data from this season shows Grealish is doing plenty to match the reigning PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
Both De Bruyne and Grealish have started 15 Premier League games apiece this season, with the latter playing one more minute overall.
In that time, the Villa man has created 55 chances to De Bruyne’s 51, although City’s number 17 has 10 assists to Grealish’s seven following an outrageous outside-of-the-boot cross for John Stones to open the scoring in Sunday’s 4-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace.
Overall, they are second and third in the Premier League’s assists table, Harry Kane’s fruitful relationship with Son Heung-min helping the England captain to amass 11 for Tottenham.
Manchester United talisman Bruno Fernandes separates them at the top when it comes to chances created, having crafted 54 for his Old Trafford colleagues.
Those numbers continue to look incredibly strong when projected across Europe’s top five leagues.
Hakan Calhanoglu has created 59 chances for Serie A leaders Milan, although only six of those have been converted, while the continental top five is rounded out by Lyon’s Memphis Depay being level with De Bruyne on 51.
In terms of assists, Kane and De Bruyne are again one and two from Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller (nine) and Roma’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan (eight).
Goals, guile and grubby work
De Bruyne has fired off 57 shots this season (17 on target) to Grealish’s 40 (14 on target).
However, City’s designated penalty taker has only scored three, with his first Premier League goal from open play this season coming earlier in January at Chelsea.
Grealish has weighed in with five for Dean Smith’s men, including a double in their logic-defying 7-2 evisceration of champions Liverpool.
Grealish has 81.2 per cent accuracy for passes ending in the final third, outstripping De Bruyne’s 73.5 per cent, although the City favourite attempting 105 crosses and corners to the younger man’s 51 goes some way to explaining this discrepancy.
In terms of dribble success rate, they are neck and neck again, with Grealish returning 63.8 per cent and De Bruyne 63.
Grealish has attempted 69 dribbles to his idol’s 46, which does a little to explain the frequency with which he draws free-kicks.
His 73 fouls won is comfortably the highest in the division, with Palace’s Wilfred Zaha (51), Liverpool’s Sadio Mane (43) and Kane (40) up next.
A key reason for this could be how integral Grealish is to so much of Villa’s attacking play. As per Opta, he is responsible for 11 per cent of his team’s passes. By contrast, Zaha and Kane make five per cent and Mane four.
As players who cherish the ball so much, De Bruyne and his counterpart do plenty to get it back.
The UEFA midfielder of the year has made 74 recoveries, 27 tackles and seven interceptions in the Premier League this season, compared to 79 recoveries, 23 tackles and eight interceptions for Grealish.
It seems implausible that these two midfield maestros will stray too far from the thick of the action at the Etihad Stadium, which should make for a very watchable encounter.
Whether or not it amounts to a live audition for Grealish, only time will tell.
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