The 2014 Professional Footballers Assocation (PFA) Awards were essentially a no-brainer. Luis Suarez earned a well-deserved Footballer of the Year Award, with a potentially record-breaking offensive season that propelled a surprising Liverpool squad to championship contention.
Suarez deserves the limelight for his Premier League accomplishments. The Uruguayan striker will certainly be under the microscope the rest of the year, as the Reds attempt to claim a shocking title, but regardless of the club's final place, Suarez has cemented his status as one of the world's elite footballers.
At age 27, Suarez is in the middle of his prime. However, unlike last season, when Gareth Bale won the Young Player of the Year award as well, there is no youthful superstar who should have a stranglehold on the main award for years.
Bale's defection to Real Madrid opened the door for a host of other contenders, but at the moment, it does not look like a similarly talented young player has yet filled the void.
Suarez may have been the unquestioned winner in 2013-14, but looking ahead to next season, here are a few names who figure to provide a stiff challenge to his repeat bid.
Eden Hazard, Chelsea
If there is one player poised to fill the void of young superstars in the EPL, it is the Belgian Hazard. After winning Ligue 1 Player of the Year at Lille, Hazard added to his hardware collection with a Young Player of the Year award this season. The Chelsea midfielder also finished second to Suarez in the Player of the Year voting, illustrating a star on the rise.
For a Chelsea team bereft of finishing touch among the forwards, Hazard's playmaking ability has been the lifeblood of the second-place Blues. Unlike offensive dynamos Liverpool and Manchester City, Chelsea have largely gotten by with just enough creativity from their midfielders and a stifling defense that has conceded nine fewer goals than any other team in the league.
With 14 goals and seven assists, Hazard has established himself as one of the best all-around threats in the Premier League. Indeed, the advanced statistics show that Hazard has been one of the league's most dynamic offensive threats:
Hazard may even end up as a Ballon d'Or finalist next season at his exponential rate of improvement. If that is the case, do not be surprised to see him finish one place higher on the podium next year.
Yaya Toure, Manchester City
Though City's offense have come back to the pack a bit after a blistering first half, Yaya Toure remains the catalyst for the Premier League's top attack. The Ivorian midfielder possesses a dazzling combination of strength and skill on the ball, Toure is the key for the Citizens' free-flowing offense.
Toure, who finished third in the voting this year, figures to be in contention for the award so long as his role in Manuel Pellegrini's offense remains similar next season. Long known for his versatility, Toure has assumed more of an attacking mindset this year, resulting in some gaudy scoring totals:
If City come back to win the Premier League title, Toure's recent resurgence will have been a huge factor. Toure has been scorching offensively, tallying six goals in his past six league games. For a team that was struggling with its form following Champions League and FA Cup losses, Toure has righted the ship to potentially salvage City's 2014 campaign.
Toure will have a long summer, as he will also serve as an integral part of the Ivory Coast's World Cup squad. Approaching his 31st birthday, the miles on Toure's odometer must start to add up at some point. Nevertheless, it would be surprising not to see him in contention for the award again next season.
Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool
Suarez's toughest challenger might actually be his Anfield teammate. At 24 years old, Sturridge was Hazard's stiffest competition for the Young Footballer of the Year award, coming in second behind the Chelsea midfielder.
Sturridge and Hazard may end up finishing in the top two slots for the larger prize next year. The Liverpool forward has compiled 27 points in 27 league games, good enough to earn him a spot on the Premier League Team of the Year roster.
Astoundingly, Sturridge's current three-game goalless drought is his longest since November, and his longest Premier League streak of the season. Part of his effectiveness stems from his ability to be effective whether starting or coming off the bench, often providing Jose Mourinho's side a dangerous second-half catalyst:
Sturridge has excelled in exposed first-team opportunity since transferring to Liverpool in 2013's January transfer window. While Suarez may have been the star who propelled the Reds into contention this season, Sturridge represents the future foundation that could keep Liverpool at the top of the EPL.