De Bruyne marks 50 not out in style as Man City persistence pays off

By Sports Desk April 05, 2022

Great art will typically have its back to the wall, and for an hour on Tuesday it was a great artist who stood with his back to a red wall on a rainy night in Manchester, unhappy with his lot.

A promising exhibition was turning into a soggy mess as Kevin De Bruyne had his visionary brushstrokes stripped of their customary colour, the false nine lacking his usual lustre.

But then the narrative flipped, and a 50th Champions League appearance in City colours for this wonderful Belgian footballer had its masterpiece, a finish any genuine number nine would admire from substitute Phil Foden's delicious pass. One-nil, and that was how it stayed, a fine result from a taxing evening.

City manager Pep Guardiola had joked about the perception that he can "overthink" in big games in the build-up to this tussle, and he fooled those who cooked up the team sheet that reckoned on De Bruyne occupying a wide-right midfield role.

Of course he cropped up there at times, on the left too, and at times in the centre of midfield, but De Bruyne spent just as much time as the further City man forward, chasing lost causes, closing down, doing the donkey work.

This latest landmark appearance for City – coming so soon after his 200th Premier League appearance for the leaders on Saturday – ended in triumph where it could have been frustration, or been worse.

You see, sometimes great artists do silly things, like slicing off an ear or headbutting Marco Materazzi, and when De Bruyne chopped down Joao Felix in the 34th minute to cut short an Atletico counter-attack, it looked like being a costly error.

A yellow card was surely coming, and with De Bruyne already a booking away from suspension, City would have lost him for the second leg of this tie. Referee Istvan Kovacs kept the card in his pocket and an incredulous Diego Simeone, the Atletico head coach, had to be asked to cool it by the man with the whistle. Simeone might be known for his histrionics, but this seemed eminently excusable.

De Bruyne has entered the imperial phase of his City career, with records and landmarks stacking up alongside trophies. But the Champions League is the trophy City and De Bruyne want now, and it is the obdurate brilliance of teams such as Atletico that they must find a way past to reach that goal.

When Guardiola substituted Raheem Sterling, Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez in the 68th minute, bringing on Foden, Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus, he called De Bruyne over to the touchline too, passing on a word or two of advice. De Bruyne had seen a free-kick well saved by Jan Oblak, but was otherwise being stifled, and when he was not being stifled he was looking thoroughly fed up in the rain.

Barely two minutes after the Pep talk and the goal arrived, local lad Foden with a pass from the gods and the finish doing it justice.

De Bruyne came into this game having made more assists in the Champions League than any other player from an English club since his City debut in the competition in September 2015. To those 17 assists – only Neymar (25), Kylian Mbappe (20) and Angel Di Maria (18) have had more – De Bruyne has now added 11 goals.

Five of his previous 10 had come from outside the box, but this was a striker's goal, running in behind and lashing into the left corner.

A head injury forced De Bruyne to abandon last season's Champions League final, and City will want to be sure he is present and correct should they get through to the showpiece again.

A tricky second leg awaits them next week at the Wanda Metropolitano, then potentially a semi-final. But De Bruyne's strike was as admirable as City's persistence against an Atletico side who repeatedly got every man back inside their final third at the behest of their strutting boss, and it was the sort of result that had the home fans at the Etihad Stadium dreaming once again.

During the international break, De Bruyne and wife Michele took 24 hours away in Paris, and it will be the French capital that stages the Champions League final in May.

City might be there. De Bruyne's time, City's time, might be coming.

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