Kevin De Bruyne holds the key to changing Manchester City’s Champions League narrative

The brilliant Belgian returns to the Bernabeu out to re-write his own story of near misses in major competitions as Manchester City aim to finally get over the line in Europe

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Wednesday 04 May 2022 08:03
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<p>Kevin De Bruyne and Manchester City will take a 4-3 lead into the second leg </p>

Kevin De Bruyne and Manchester City will take a 4-3 lead into the second leg

It can be seen as Pep Guardiola’s never-ending quest, but the challenge of winning the Champions League with Manchester City actually began earlier for Kevin De Bruyne, the playmaker who predated his manager at the Etihad Stadium. On Wednesday, barring a surprise appearance for Fernandinho, he will become the only player to start two Champions League semi-finals for them at the Bernabeu. If the contrast between nouveau riche and aristocracy was more pronounced the first time, in 2016, another gulf has grown since then.

Real had a mere 10 European Cups to their name when Fernando’s own goal decided that semi-final, a couple of months before Guardiola’s arrival in Manchester. Now Real have 13 and City still have none. Under the former Barcelona manager, they have become ever-presents in the knockout stages. They have found ways of not winning the competition, from defensive errors to contentious officiating to Guardiola’s backfiring leftfield choices, each adding to the theory he overthinks things.

City have gorged on domestic honours in De Bruyne’s time, potentially adding a fourth Premier League to five League Cups and an FA Cup, but they can feel unfulfilled in Europe. Their reputation is not that of Paris Saint-Germain, the serial bottlers who have never worked out how to turn colossal spending into coherent team-building, but nor is that of Chelsea, the suddenly moneyed club who twice found a pragmatic way to prevail on the continent.

De Bruyne is aware they could be seen in a different light with victory in Paris on 28 May. “It would change the perspective from the outside,” he said. “Winning it would change that little narrative. The fact we’ve been fighting for numerous years and getting to the latter stages means we’ve been doing really well. It’s a cup competition and the quality is very high so it’s very difficult to win it but if you look back at the way we performed and I have performed over seven years we have done really well.”

His own excellence has become a feature. He produced one of the great performances of doomed heroics in 2019’s astonishing second leg against Tottenham. He scored the winner in City’s 2020 win in the Bernabeu. Last year, he was arguably the competition’s outstanding player in the knockout stages until a forceful Antonio Rudiger curtailed his final and that mantle instead went to N’Golo Kante.

So far this season, he has decided the quarter-final against Atletico Madrid. Within 11 minutes of the semi-final kicking off, he already had a goal and an assist against Real. In games populated by high-class players, De Bruyne can still look the best. But in 2018, Guardiola said the midfielder could win the Ballon d’Or if City won the Champions League. Neither has happened.

De Bruyne has been in outstanding form in this season’s knock-out stages

Perceptions of him could change, too. He is one of the finest players of his generation but, while Belgium have finished third in the World Cup and been quarter-finalists in successive European Championships, he is missing the crowning glory. The Champions League could provide it.

“I don’t think it changes the perspective that I look at myself as a player,” De Bruyne reflected. “I’ve known what I’ve done good and bad in my career and I’m pretty happy with what I’ve done. I want to win every trophy that I can get but that’s a hard task. I would obviously love to win the Champions League also.”

Certainly City feel likelier winners than in 2016 when Manuel Pellegrini’s team limped to fourth in the Premier League, with 66 points, and when their team in the Bernabeu included Fernando, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Nicolas Otamendi and Jesus Navas.

City were an altogether different team when they last faced Madrid in the semi-finals

“I remember when we played that game and didn’t have the greatest of seasons,” said the Belgian. “Madrid was the powerhouse at the time. We lost 1-0 in the end with an own goal but it was a pretty boring game if I remember correctly. We’re in a better shape right now, we are better set up as a team and play better and have more experience in this stage so we will hopefully be better prepared.”

He is certainly in better shape than he was a few months ago. He returned from Euro 2020 semi-fit. He had a stop-start beginning to the season. When the PFA Player of the Year for the last two seasons was runner-up in this season’s Footballer of the Year award, it was a recognition of his brilliance since the start of December.

Before then, it was altogether tougher. “I have never experienced the pain that I had back then,” De Bruyne recalled. “I was trying to come back but was in pain with my ankle every day and it wasn’t something I enjoyed. mentally it was hard to overcome that.” Now it seems he has. City have to overcome a different kind of hardship, the disappointment of annual European exits. Sometimes billed as the best team on the continent, they still lack that official status.

“We’ve not won it yet and that will probably be the only criticism we can get,” De Bruyne said. “We’ve been there loads of times and always fighting to win this competition so the consistency that we’ve had has been amazing, pretty much as good as everybody else. We just need to try to get over the line.”

And that would certainly shift the narrative in City’s favour.

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