Mohamed Salah overshadows Roberto Firmino but brilliant Brazilian crucial to Liverpool
It was a close run thing in the end. Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah edged Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne in the race for the Football Writers' Footballer of the Year award by fewer than 20 votes to beat the Belgian to a second individual award, after Salah's PFA Player of the Year triumph, in the space of nine days.
That Salah and De Bruyne were involved in a photo finish was no surprise because the two players have dominated this season for their clubs with some majestic performances.
But what may have slipped under the radar is that Roberto Firmino, Salah's Liverpool teammate, received just one vote from over 300 journalists eligible to cast their preference.
Firmino is good at passing almost unnoticed, however. The Brazilian forward has scored 27 goals in all competitions this season, and has also racked up 16 assists, but when you play alongside Salah, it is not going to be easy to rise from the crowd.
Yet as Liverpool prepare to face Roma in the Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday, aiming to reach the Champions League final after last week's 5-2 semifinal first-leg victory, Firmino's contribution deserves greater acclaim than he has so far received.
Liverpool's decision to hand the 26-year-old a new five-year contract highlights his worth to Jurgen Klopp's team, with the club determined to safeguard the future of a player who has become an integral part of their success this term.
While Salah has dominated the spotlight with his goals, Firmino is perhaps the most important of a group of unsung players whose improvement under Klopp has enabled them to emerge as performers on the big stage this season.
Andy Robertson, Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have all quietly grown into their roles this season, but Firmino's contribution has provided the perfect foil for Salah, alongside Senegalese forward Sadio Mane.
And Klopp insisted after Firmino signed his new contract that, within Anfield at least, his importance is recognised by all.
"He knows and appreciates absolutely this club," Klopp said. "The other boys really respect him for all the work he's doing.
"This constant discussion about whether he's undervalued or whatever in public, this never happened for one second, either in the club or in the team.
"He feels completely comfortable and is planning for the long-term here. That's becoming rare, because if you are not Barcelona or not Real Madrid, then there's usually another club somewhere you can go to.
"But he is absolutely a big factor in our future."
In any other season, 27 goals and 16 assists would see Firmino in the running for the individual player of the year awards, but Salah and De Bruyne have both taken themselves to another level with their consistency and high-level performances.
When he arrived at Anfield in the summer of 2015 following a £29 million transfer from Hoffenheim, he once again slipped under the radar, with Christian Benteke claiming the headlines after arriving from Aston Villa for £32.5m.
Benteke was supposedly the safe bet, with sources at Anfield telling ESPN FC that Firmino was regarded as a risk.
No other club was willing to meet Hoffenheim's valuation and aside from having no experience of the Champions League or Europa League, he had also only just broken into the Brazil squad after failing to represent his country at any level as a youngster.
In terms of pedigree, Firmino was lacking, and there were also question marks over his best position, but Liverpool's scouting department believed he possessed the flexibility and tactical intelligence to grow as a player.
And although his first goal for the club did not come until November 2015, Firmino's work ethic and dedication impressed his teammates and Klopp after his appointment as Brendan Rodgers' successor in October 2015.
Benteke, meanwhile, quickly fell by the wayside before being sold to Crystal Palace. Firmino, however, lived up to his promise to become the player who is now regarded as one of Europe's most complete centre-forwards.
He delivers when it matters and also makes life easier for Salah with his unselfish approach. But the goal scoring has not been confined to the Egyptian forward, who is now being regarded as Cristiano Ronaldo's biggest rival for this year's Ballon d'Or award.
Firmino's goal in January's 4-3 Anfield win against City, when he dispossessed John Stones before beating goalkeeper Ederson, was one of the more important, but he also scored the decisive goal in the 2-1 Champions League quarterfinal second-leg victory at the Etihad.
There was a clever "no-look" finish against West Ham, a stunning goal from a narrow angle at Huddersfield and 10 goals so far in the Champions League -- the same number as Salah.
Only Ronaldo has scored more Champions League goals than Firmino this season, while his seven assists in the competition is bettered only by Liverpool teammate James Milner.
So while Roma will work overtime to try to keep Salah quiet on Wednesday as they attempt to stifle Liverpool and overturn their first-leg deficit, the Italians will also need to pay close attention to Firmino.
Sooner or later, everybody else will, too.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_