The Kevin De Bruyne pass that proved anything is possible for Manchester City

The Belgian player will be key as Manchester City look to break down Atletico Madrid’s defence

<p>Kevin De Bruyne has six goals in six starts after an ‘exceptional’ display against Liverpool </p>

Kevin De Bruyne has six goals in six starts after an ‘exceptional’ display against Liverpool

There was a moment in the closing stages of the draw with Liverpool that should stay with every Manchester City supporter inside the Etihad for the rest of this season and beyond, no matter how it turns out. And no, that moment was not Riyad Mahrez’s miss. It was the pass that led to it.

With around 56 seconds remaining of the four minutes added on, Kevin De Bruyne picked up the ball inside his own half and drove past Fabinho, bypassing Liverpool’s midfield as he had done for much of the previous 93 minutes. This particular run took him into the opposition half, to the left-hand edge of the centre circle.

There were three players in De Bruyne’s eyeline: Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip both backtracking desperately and Phil Foden darting between them. Or at least, it looks like there are just three. Only De Bruyne really knows if he could also see Mahrez, breaking forward over on the right, apparently cut off by the bodies of those Liverpool defenders.

But whether De Bruyne could see Mahrez or not, he found him. The low, hard pass was hit with his weaker left foot and while stumbling off-balance under pressure from Fabinho, but it still beat Van Dijk, Matip and Foden to boot, bending around the back of that retreating defence to put Mahrez through.

After Pep Guardiola had spent much of the build-up to Sunday’s game bemoaning it clashing with the final round of the Masters, here was his own Tiger Woods on the 16th in Augusta in 2005. De Bruyne’s manager described the pass as “exceptional”, and it is up there with the best in his back catalogue, but it was nothing out of the ordinary.

De Bruyne opened a TikTok account over the weekend and a post on Sunday detailed a typical day in the life of him and his family. After being named man of the match in what many now believe the highest quality fixture in European football, he treated his sons Mason and Rome to a McDonalds drive-thru. A day in the life indeed.

Sunday was just the latest in a string of exemplary De Bruyne performances, following on from his match-winning turn in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid. It is now six goals in six, one in each of his last four, while his creative influence is in no way diminished.

De Bruyne’s breakthrough goal against Atletico earned City a slender lead ahead of tonight’s second leg

But as natural as that may seem for De Bruyne, it has not always been the case this season. At its start, he struggled. Though he scored in the reverse of Sunday’s game, back at Anfield in October to earn another 2-2 draw, he was noticeably off the pace. He had been for a couple of months, in fairness, starting just four of City’s 10 games up until that point.

The after-effects of an ankle ligament injury, sustained with Belgium at the European Championship and treated with two pain-killing injections, were still being felt. De Bruyne felt a duty to play through the pain barrier for his country in their quarter-final defeat to Italy, but once the severity of the damage to his ankle became clear, he began to regret that decision.

The summer had begun badly too. The image of City’s best and most influential player leaving the Estadio do Dragao pitch in tears, with concussion and a busted eye socket, encapsulated how just about everything that could go wrong in their first-ever Champions League final did go wrong.

That night in Porto and the summer with Belgium which followed could have been the crowning moments of a career that, on ability alone, deserves to be remembered among the very best. De Bruyne turned 30 during the Euros and in the autumn of his playing years, there are two obvious, outstanding items left to tick off his honours roll.

And while a major international tournament could follow later this year, for now the focus is on the Champions League. City only have a slender one-goal advantage to protect in Madrid, earned for them by De Bruyne, but that should be enough to force Diego Simeone’s Atletico out of their comfort zone and onto something approaching the front foot.

It was De Bruyne who said Atletico’s approach to the first leg was the first time he had ever seen a 5-5-0. The alternating contrast of styles in this Atletico-Liverpool quadruple-header that City have on their hands could not be starker. Even though they are a goal down, it would not be a total surprise if Simeone’s game plan started broadly similar to last week.

Manchester City are aiming to win a historic treble this season

Yet after watching that pass to Mahrez on Sunday, you would not bet against De Bruyne bending a pass around both Atletico’s banks of five. “It’s special,” said Fernandinho, when asked about his teammate’s form on Tuesday. “He’s got amazing vision for the game. It’s very difficult to find that from any other player in the world.

“He’s improved here,” City’s longest-serving player and captain added. “The experience he has and the quality he has – technical and physical – has seen him mature. He is so vital for us. He can decide games with a pass, assist and he’s scoring more goals now.”

In a shock to Guardiola, Fernandinho announced his intention to bring a nine-year Etihad career to its end this summer. The armband will be vacated. De Bruyne is one of several vice-captains at City, part of a wider leadership group, but will be a leading candidate alongside Ilkay Gundogan and Ruben Dias to take up the full-time role.

Promotion to the captaincy may mean relatively little outside the Etihad dressing room but it would be a suitable distinction for City’s most talented and most important player, particularly if this run of form leads to a first Champions League crown or a historic treble. Considering how well he is playing, De Bruyne is making anything seem possible.

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