Man City can’t succeed in Europe without solving their Kevin De Bruyne problem

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Kevin De Bruyne in eight seasons Manchester Citys increasingly epic discovery and summed it up in eight words. The only man captain City in the A’s said, “We’re not finished yet.” Champions League Last. Rather than end his time at City has brought one final, two semi-finals, three quarter-finals and one last-16 tie. For De Bruyne, who turns 32 in June, arguably the greatest player in City’s history may end up with the bittersweet tag of the best footballer of his generation never win the Champions League.

Consider Kylian Mbappe – and his city mates erling holland – are in a young generation and it is understandable that De Bruyne is a different individual, just short of the club game’s most prestigious medal. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have won the Champions League. So are Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez and Neymar. His long-time Belgian colleague Eden Hazard was at least an unused substitute in Real Madrid’s final win last year. De Bruyne, in contrast, exited the 2021 final with bruises and tears after a shuddering collision with Antonio Rudiger. The city is lost.

It might be the closest he’s ever come. And yet, if he accepts that decisions on his career will revolve around the Champions League, he is adamant that he will not bemoan the trophies he did not win. “Not really,” he said. “I don’t regret anything I do. We’ve done really well in the Champions League and I know people base everything on just winning, but I think there’s a lot of situations in games like this – the Madrid game, the Tottenham game where we deserve go. Were but didn’t.

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“I want win it but I know until we don’t I’ll come here and get the same questions and I’m okay with people judging you on that. I don’t look at it like that because you can win the Champions League If nothing else you will be called the best in Europe but I don’t know. What are the criteria to be the best team? Everyone has their own opinion on it and we want to be the best every year. It’s been great for eight years.

Certainly City’s exit has often come in the midst of great entertainment. They have become experts at near-misses, struggling find ways to leave the competition while scoring lots of goals. They won 4–3 in the second leg against Spurs in 2019, with De Bruyne putting in a stellar performance. They beat Real Madrid 4-3 in the first leg of the semi-finals last year. He scored six times in two legs against Monaco in 2017. He went out at every opportunity.

There is one more topic. When City win a key knockout tie against Paris Saint-Germain in 2016, or Real in 2020, or Borussia Dortmund and PSG in 2021 – it hinges on a stellar De Bruyne performance. He has been a talismanic force.

And yet he finds himself in a peculiar position. He has been named in Fifpro’s XI for 2020, 2021 and 2022. He has spent some of 2023 on the city bench. He did not start four of the last 11 matches for which he was available: as two of them were against Tottenham, it was hardly a of squad rotation.

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no one has ever played more games pep guardiola Compared De Bruyne, with . Yet if he has been a constant under the Catalan’s reign at City, the manager now feels more of a critic. “He can get better,” Guardiola said in October. “He’s not playing at his top level, Kevin, not yet.” In December, he reflected that De Bruyne would have to be angrier to be at his best. In January and February, it was left to him to play defining games.

De Bruyne was benched for the loss at Spurs (Getty Images)

And yet De Bruyne is, as Guardiola will readily admit, a unique talent. The manager said, “He has an incredible ability assist, score goals and see passes.” “But I always believe they will grow and get better when simple things, like not losing the ball.” Perhaps De Bruyne’s ambition clashes with Guardiola’s preference for control. The risk of losing the ball is integral to Belgium; The defense-splitting pass is rarely a simple matter.

There is statistical proof of their skill. Even after clocking out 351 minutes in City’s last nine games, he is still three assists clear at the top of the Premier League charts. While his goals have fallen short this season, with just five so far after the most prolific campaign of his career, he is on course set a career-best assists record. He has 17 so far. He is Haaland’s main supplier, even as the arrival of the Norwegians means his days as the False Nine are over.

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This was a reflection of his versatility. “People say when you get older you go down and for me it’s the opposite. I’ve been down, up, left, right,” he said. “I think I change positions less now Because the coach is the same but whatever comes I will try and do the job but I will never be angry. I just do what I do.

And, arguably, nobody does it better. “I’m a perfectionist,” De Bruyne said. “Whatever I do in football or life, I always want it be 100 per cent.” And the problem for him is that City’s record in the Champions League remains incomplete.