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In this first year of post-Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo Champions League, the race is on to find the next superstar. While Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe have long had the look of princes in waiting to them, this season has seen some of England's best and brightest make their case, both in league play and Europe, to rank among the best and brightest young talents. Bukayo Saka is firing Arsenal back towards the big time, Jude Bellingham has turned the Santiago Bernabeu into his playground.

If the Messi vs. Ronaldo debate has taught us anything it is that it is not enough to merely admire two transcendent greats. Sides must be picked. And so we have set it upon ourselves to make the decision Gareth Southgate must surely dread: Saka or Bellingham? Bellingham or Saka?

The case for Bukayo Saka

I should say from the outset that this is both an unnecessarily difficult process and one that is immensely pleasurable when anyone with a rooting interest for the England national team takes a step back to assess the bigger picture. Two of the finest young talents in the game are English and so are Phil Foden, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Declan Rice. *Three Lions intensifying*

In much the same way as deep down, if they really had to, no I can't explain why, just do it, every parent could pick a favorite child, so I feel that I can separate these two budding superstars if I have to. It's Bukayo Saka, the man who has done more than anyone not named Mikel Arteta to make Arsenal a seriously big club again.

It is not really about the output. It is, however, worth acknowledging that this week saw Saka creep ahead of Bellingham in terms of league goals and assists, 20 to the Arsenal man, 19 to the midfielder who started out the season breaking scoring records that Cristiano Ronaldo was supposed to have dragged beyond the reach of mortals.

Saka's output is quite something though, both in volume and in the technical variety he has shown. In the last month alone we have seen him isolate his defender on the right corner of the box, beating him and scoring by cutting onto his left foot and driving hard at the near post, letting the defender send him towards the touchline and simply smashing the ball over the goalkeeper and finally reprising a classic with a wonderful strike bent into the far post.

Of course Bellingham has plenty of great goals this season too. What he has not been able to have and may never accomplish is the transformative impact Saka has had on Arsenal's fortunes. It is no exaggeration to say that he has been the north star for the Gunners rise from a pit of their own making to a side that can seriously aspire to win the Champions League in the coming years.

A club riven by factionalism has been united in its belief in, trust of and admiration towards Saka, who has shouldered an almighty burden as the face of a once great franchise. When Arsenal were trundling their way through the Europa League, he was the beacon in the darkness. Now he has attracted some of Europe's best to play alongside him, quite literally in Rice's case. Even as he clocks up personal milestones he demands more, bemoaning his failure to get a hat trick when he had just scored his 50th goal for Arsenal. With Saka, this club has been revived. When Bellingham has so swiftly moved to the best of the best, his England teammate has taken a team to that level. -- James Benge

The case for Jude Bellingham

After starting the season on fire for Real Madrid things have cooled down for Bellingham with him only scoring three goals in all competitions during the first two months of 2024. An ankle injury has meant that Bellingham has had to spend some time on the sideline while Carlo Ancelloti looks to figure out how to keep Real Madrid ticking without his star man allowing Saka to pass him in goal contributions. But while, as Benge mentioned above, goal contributions aren't everything, the fact that we're discussing them by comparing a box-to-box midfielder who has been used as a central attacking midfielder to a winger who also takes penalties is an impressive feat alone.

If I had to start a team today, I'd have to start it with Bellingham due to his ability to be whatever he is needed to be at a specific time. Bellingham was never signed by Real Madrid to be their top attacker but as situations change and his importance grows that's exactly what has happened. For Borussia Dortmund and England Bellingham's role was, and is, to orchestrate from deep, transitioning defense into attack. He would, of course, still pop up for the timely goal, but until moving to Real Madrid the opposing penalty area wasn't Bellingham's primary office. Few midfielders can be so involved in the buildup while also producing the final goal and Bellingham's impact recalls another England legend, with the man having a Frank Lampard-esque impact at only 20. 

It's true that Bellingham hasn't had to do as much as Saka to raise the profile of his team. Bellingham's move to Spain was about him joining the best, raising his level to meet the team as opposed to the other way around. But, before thatm moving to Borussia Dortmund from Birmingham City in the English Championship, Bellingham has shown that he can elevate those around him. If not for Bellingham suffering a knee injury and then missing out on Dortmund's final day draw with Mainz, it could've been the Black and Yellow who ended Bayern Munich's decade of dominance atop the Bundesliga. Even during that season, playing deeper, the Englishman was able to register 14 goals and seven assists in all competitions, an astonishing number that he is blowing out of the water in his time at Real Madrid. 

The poise that Bellingham carries himself at at such a young age and his ability to elevate the games of others and himself puts us in a place where it's unknown what his ceiling is. Of course, the real winner of this is England as Southgate is spoiled for choice but it does bring immense expectations. Bellingham is already on track to win La Liga this season, but being at Real Madrid, that's the expectation. It's about what other trophies that he can win as Real Madrid will be favorites for everything if Mbappe joins. Bellingham may never get the chance to carry a club up the table, but he has the chance to join a club at the top and keep them there for years to come, which is still quite a feat. -- Chuck Booth