Leroy Sane deserves nod over Dele Alli for Young Player of the Year award
There are few things you would expect Manchester City fans and former United defender Gary Neville to agree on in the build-up to a derby that could decide who claims the fourth Champions League spot. But there will be plenty of supporters who will give a knowing nod to Neville's assertion that City winger Leroy Sane should win the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli is the overwhelming favourite to pick up the honour but Neville argued that Sane is a more deserving winner given that he is a Premier League rookie.
"It's between Dele Alli and Leroy Sane, but with Alli we know him and he's been in the league for a couple of seasons," Neville said after the nominations were announced.
"For Sane to come into the league and make the impact he has, it looks like he's going to be really special."
He's not the only former player or indeed the only former United player to be excited by the potential of the German winger. Ahead of the game against leaders Chelsea on April. 5, ex-England defender Rio Ferdinand was full of praise too.
"This kid is definitely a talent, he's got the potential to be one of the best in the league in years to come and for his first season under Pep he's gone from strength to strength. He's the nearest I've seen to Thierry Henry in full flow," he said.
Former Liverpool and England midfielder Steven Gerrard is another fan. After watching Sane in City's 3-0 victory over Southampton on Saturday when he scored and tormented Saints' full-back Cedric Soares throughout, Gerrard added: "Sane is potentially going to be world class. I've seen him a lot this season and he scares the life out of defenders with his pace and his strength."
In the Premier League, Alli, who won the award last season, is statistically well ahead of Sane. From 31 appearances to Sane's 20, he has scored 16 goals to Sane's five, five assists to one and averages more passes and more key passes than the City player. But those figures don't show how Sane took some time to adjust to life in England following his £37 million move from Schalke in the summer.
The 21-year-old missed the preseason tour to China after being given extra time off as he was part of the Germany squad that reached the semifinals of Euro 2016. His early days were then hit by a hamstring injury, which meant he didn't make his first Premier League start until two months into the season.
Sane's first few appearances then coincided with a downturn in form at the Etihad as City went from winning their first 10 matches of the season to a run of six games without a victory. There was the odd fleeting moment that showcased his potential in his first few games but initially he struggled to make an impact. And it also appeared that Pep Guardiola wasn't sure what to make of his new signing, playing him on both wings and then as a left wing-back in the 3-1 defeat to Chelsea on Dec. 13.
But it all changed for Sane when he scored his first goal for the club in December as City fought back from an early goal at home to Arsenal to win 2-1. He followed it up with goals against Tottenham and Crystal Palace in his next two games and since the turn of the year, he has not looked back.
He now has six goals in his last 11 appearances plus two assists and is now such a major part of Guardiola's plans that he has missed just one of City's last 17 games when he was rested for the FA Cup fifth round tie at Huddersfield Town, which finished 0-0.
Sane has also proven his ability to perform on the European stage -- something Alli has struggled to do. The England midfielder scored just once in eight matches of a disappointing Champions League and Europa League campaign this season, which he ended with an ugly tackle on Gent's Brecht Dejaegere that will see him miss the first three games of next season's campaign.
Sane, on the other hand, was brilliant in a thrilling 5-3 victory over Monaco in the Champions League round of 16 first leg, setting up Raheem Sterling's opener and scoring the fifth.
Guardiola is trying to temper the excitement surrounding his attacker. "We can't expect at 21-years-old that he is done. He still has to perform for 90 minutes, in the game sometimes he can disappear a bit but that is part of the process," he said after Sane scored in the 2-0 victory over Sunderland on March 5.
Sane will be eligible for the Young Player of the Year award for another two years and if he continues his impressive rise at City, it will be difficult for anyone to stop him winning it in those seasons to come.
Jonathan is ESPN FC's Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.