Kevin De Bruyne will have his legacy moment – but this time he has Erling Haaland
Back in November, it was suggested to Kevin De Bruyne that it must be a dream playing with Erling Haaland. “Ach, it’s like any forward,” the Manchester City midfielder said, a response as clipped as one of his crosses. It was not the answer his inquisitor was expecting and, almost apologetically, De Bruyne added: “He’s so quick, though”.
It felt like a big brother being a little too reluctant to credit a talented younger sibling for fear too much praise might go to his head but, in truth, you get all the answers you want and so much more watching this pair going at it together on the pitch.
And, boy, did they go at it against Real Madrid, a pincer movement so slick, so sharp, so suffocating that you had to remind yourself after a dizzying, spell binding first half hour that City were playing a team that had hoovered up five of the previous nine European Cups.
City were so relentless their dominance was difficult to fully digest in those early stages and the tone was set from the front by the frightening, almost demonic intensity of Haaland and De Bruyne’s press, with everyone else filing in behind. Real could not get out of their own third, let alone their own half and it was almost a shock to the senses when the ball finally wormed its way back to Ederson with 28 minutes on the clock. It was like a couple of snarling rottweilers being unleashed and even Real – usually so adept at weathering a storm – routinely found themselves overwhelmed, locked in a choke hold. But for the brilliance of Thibaut Courtois, Haaland could have had a hat-trick, and City seven on the night.
Twice the PFA Player of the Year, third last year in the Ballon d’Or voting, a multiple Premier League winner and one of the finest passers of his generation, De Bruyne has achieved so much in his illustrious career. And yet there was still that nagging feeling that he was missing that defining moment on the big stage, a legacy moment.
He was brilliant against Real here in the semi-final, first leg 12 months ago but then City crashed out in dramatic, agonising circumstances in Madrid. He had helped propel City into the final the season before that with a virtuoso performance against Paris Saint-Germain but then lost in the final against Chelsea, when his evening was cut short after suffering an acute fracture of the nose and an orbital fracture to his left eye socket after running into Antonio Rudiger. With Belgium, it has been a series of what might have beens.
Let us savour that pass for City and Bernardo’s first goal for a moment, then. Luka Modric, a man who knows a thing or two about an eye of the needle pass and a midfielder not exactly short of legacy moments, should have known better than to stand off De Bruyne. But there was still only a tiny gap through which De Bruyne could thread the ball between the Croat and Toni Kroos. He found it, with the perfect weight, and Bernardo did the rest. For De Bruyne, it was a fitting companion piece to that stupendous strike in Madrid last week that earned City a crucial 1-1 draw.
De Bruyne has previously talked down the importance of adding that elusive European crown to his considerable list of honours but does anyone really believe that? You only had to witness the hunger with which De Bruyne set about harassing Real to appreciate this meant a lot more to the Belgian than he has been willing to let on. You could almost taste his desperation to drag City over the line and, at times, he looked wound to a coil, too pumped up, notably when he let rip at Pep Guardiola shortly after the restart after taking exception to a rebuke from his manager. “Shut up and let me get on with it” seemed to be the gist of De Bruyne’s retort. For a moment, it was like the once volatile teenager in De Bruyne had resurfaced.
He had expended so much energy, physically, mentally and emotionally, that when he briefly bent over and rested his hands on his knees midway through the second period, you wondered if he had puffed himself out. But it was not long before he had got his second wind, even if he looked positively shattered, every sinew having been drained, when his number was finally called and, after a quick embrace with Haaland, left the pitch to a standing ovation.
It seems unthinkable now that, over a five week period back in January and February, De Bruyne started on the bench in three of seven Premier League games and was out of sorts. But, like his team, he has rallied and Haaland’s presence –whether he cares to admit it or not – has given him a fresh impetus, just as it has brought an extra dimension to an already formidable team. They have been too hot for most domestic defences to handle and Real were never given a moment’s peace on a night of restless endeavour, sheer force of will and no little quality. Haaland has scored 52 goals this season and so deserved another here but Courtois had other ideas, keeping out two headers from the Norwegian in the first half before deflecting a shot on to the crossbar later on. But this was a night when Haaland’s influence was measured in more than just goals and, in many ways, that will please Guardiola as much as anything.
And so Inter Milan now await in Istanbul. This time, De Bruyne – with his side-kick in tow – will look to finally finish the job that has so far eluded him.
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