By Oliver Platt
On Friday, the Professional Footballers' Association announced its six-man shortlist for the prestigious PFA Player of the Year award.
Its recipient will join a truly elite club; only six active Premier League players have previously earned the accolade, and two of those stars, Gareth Bale and Robin van Persie, could join the likes of Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo in being named the best in the division by their fellow professionals for a second time.
It is a forward-heavy list, with Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick the only nominee who does not spend most of his time around the opposition penalty area. Goal.com assesses those in the running for the gong.
Why does he deserve to be nominated? At the top of his game, it is difficult to argue that there has been any player more devastating than Gareth Bale this season. His best run of form began at the end of January, when a late equaliser against Norwich kick-started a phenomenal run of 11 goals in eight matches in all competitions.
That spell included brilliant doubles against Newcastle, Lyon and West Ham as well as winning strikes against West Brom and Inter. With 17 goals so far in the Premier League this season, he is not far off the pace set by Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez and has, of course, operated in a deeper position, though Andre Villas-Boas' decision to move the Welshman to a more central role has paid dividends.
Labelling Spurs a one-man team is unfair but after the summer sales of Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart (and with Emmanuel Adebayor struggling to live up to his first season at White Hart Lane), Bale has provided the star quality and cutting edge that has kept Tottenham in the race for Champions League qualification. A force of nature when in full flight.
Why he may not win: As a nominee, Bale was always a slam-dunk. When it comes to claiming his second gong in three seasons, though, it could be argued that over the course of the full campaign his performance level does not quite match that of some of his competitors.
While his second half has been spectacular, Bale scored 'only' nine goals in his first 19 league games - hardly a disappointment, but not a pace that keeps up with the likes of Suarez. Nor has his creative play been as prominent; whereas Suarez creates a chance from open play every 35 minutes and Juan Mata every 38 minutes, Bale's carves out an opportunity every 54 minutes, good for only 30th in the Premier League.
Why does he deserve to be nominated? Many would agree that this nomination has been a long time coming. Gradually, Michael Carrick has earned more and more admirers from an initially sceptical crowd thanks to his performances at the heart of Manchester United's midfield, and this season has been his finest since his £18 million move from Tottenham in 2006.
Carrick has played more passes for the champions-elect than any other player in the league, and offers more direction than his closest rival in that department, Mikel Arteta, with 10 per cent more of his passes aimed forwards. His defensive game has improved, too, and he has played a vital role in United's sturdiness during the second half of the campaign.
At 31, he is playing the best football of his career. With four Premier League winner's medals and a Champions League crown already under his belt, that is saying something.
Why he may not win: Carrick does not stand out as much as his five rivals on this list and, rightly or wrongly, it is perhaps surprising that he has not been disadvantaged by that fact. It is difficult to think of many more consistently excellent central midfield players, but many would argue that Michu's proficiency in front of goal from a more advanced position makes him a more obvious candidate.
The case has also been made that several other deep-lying midfielders - Arteta, Mousa Dembele, Leon Osman, Leon Britton - do much the same job. His consistent influence has made him a vital cog in Sir Alex Ferguson's team, but he does not possess - or does not often display - the game-changing ability of the other nominees.
Why does he deserve to be nominated? This season, the production has matched the promise. Luis Suarez's match-winning ability has never been in doubt but for all his wonderful potential, prior to this season he had proved himself only as a one-in-three striker in the English top flight.
The Uruguayan has doubled his total league tally of 11 last season having only played one match more and though he has collected only four assists so far, that is more due to the lack of finishing ability around him. Only David Silva creates more chances per minute from open play than Liverpool's No.7, and only Leighton Baines has created more clear-cut chances.
He has demonstrated his versatility as a member of Brendan Rodgers' front four, too, leading the line for the first half of the campaign before the signing of Daniel Sturridge saw him utilised in a role behind the lone striker. A front-runner.
Why he may not win: Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the PFA, was forced to defend Suarez's inclusion on the shortlist due to past misdemeanours which include a suspension for racial abuse and another ban for gesturing at opposition supporters.
Many have been won round by Suarez's brilliance as a footballer and, though he is still accused of simulation on occasion, there has been a significant improvement in his behaviour and temperament since the Patrice Evra affair. For some, a remarkable player has served his punishment; for others, the incident will remain a stain on his profile.
In terms of on-pitch factors, he has scored the majority of his goals against relegation-threatened teams.
Why does he deserve to be nominated? As debut seasons go, Eden Hazard's has been mighty impressive. With a price tag not far off £30 million, an instant impact was expected and the Belgian has delivered - but there is still more to come, and the fee Chelsea splashed out for the winger should not tempt us to forget that he is only 22 years of age.
His Blues team-mate, Juan Mata, is a more obvious winner this season but Hazard's first campaign in England compares very favourably to the majestic Spaniard. Even with the benefit of a year's settling in, Mata has scored only two league goals more than Hazard and has only two more assists.
The numbers are quite similar to those he posted in his penultimate season with Lille; in his final year in France, he racked up 20 goals and 22 assists. Hazard's potential is frightening, but we have already seen plenty.
Why he may not win: Hazard has as much ability as anybody on this list, but there is a consistency to the likes of Mata, Luis Suarez and Michael Carrick that he has not quite achieved yet.
Mata has emerged as a real leader of the 'new' Chelsea and Hazard can do the same, but he was never likely to fall into that groove this quickly. A maturity is evident among the other nominees - even Suarez has taken great strides in that respect and was, it should be remembered, the captain of Ajax - that Hazard is yet to achieve. Certainly, he must put incidents such as ball-boy-gate behind him.
Why does he deserve to be nominated? Juan Mata does not have the sheer ferocity of Gareth Bale, the relentlessness of Luis Suarez or the silkiness of David Silva. He stands up alongside all of them, but is almost understated in his brilliance.
"Game intelligence, that’s the key," Rafa Benitez said of Mata, who he has compared to Gianfranco Zola. Like Suarez, Mata has added more goals to an already superb attacking game this season, having notched 18 in all competitions so far. He leads the Premier League in assists with 11.
Tottenham have been accused of relying on Bale in their quest for Champions League qualification but Mata has been equally as important to a Chelsea team somewhat stuck between generations. The playmaker is the present and the future at Stamford Bridge.
Why he may not win: He offers so much more that it seems a simplistic argument to make, but Mata still has some way to go as a goalscorer. His totals this season are good for an attacking midfielder, but he tends to be streaky; he has had one spell of seven goals in seven games and another of six in eight, but he is in the midst of a six-game goalless run and has had two other seven-match slumps.
Chelsea's form during those spells tends to be inconsistent at best, particularly against the top teams in England and Europe. He will find it easier with a more settled supporting cast, but Suarez has offered more consistency in a weaker team, albeit against weaker teams.
ROBIN VAN PERSIE
Why does he deserve to be nominated? The Golden Boot holder has a good chance of hanging on to that accolade and may mount a successful defence of the Player of the Year prize, too. You certainly would not have bet against him until a recent goal drought but with two in his last two matches, Robin van Persie appears back to his best as Manchester United enter the final straight and he edges closer towards his first Premier League title.
Van Persie has given United the edge over Manchester City and his influence has extended beyond his goalscoring. Sir Alex Ferguson has mentioned the Dutchman in the same breath as Eric Cantona, and that nods to the aura of invincibility he has returned to the Red Devils. City's first title was only a matter of time, but that will not have lessened the shock of how it panned out. Van Persie's arrival was a firm statement of intent from United.
Why he may not win: Van Persie's hopes here will depend on when his colleagues voted; a lot of the selections have already been made, and his recent goal drought ran from mid-February.
That run of no club goal in 10 games has taken the shine off a flying start to the season - he looked nailed on for the award until a couple of months ago. Additionally, while he has displayed a ruthlessness in front of goal, his all-round game is not as breathtaking as some of his fellow nominees.