Thursday 26 April 2018

De Bruyne on fire as city enjoy seven-goal rout

Kevin De Bruyne rides the tackle of Mame Biram Diouf during Manchester City’s 7-2 rout of Stoke City at the Etihad Stadium yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Kevin De Bruyne rides the tackle of Mame Biram Diouf during Manchester City’s 7-2 rout of Stoke City at the Etihad Stadium yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

James Ducker

For 66 minutes, until Kevin De Bruyne took his leave to a rapturous standing ovation and the huge relief of everyone associated with a bludgeoned Stoke City, the sublime Belgium midfielder produced a performance of rarefied beauty, the orchestrator of a swashbuckling display from Manchester City that, at times, left you struggling to catch your breath.

Pep Guardiola would stop short of calling this 7-2 victory perfection, simply because of the way Stoke, from 3-0 down, clawed a couple of goals back either side of half-time to very briefly - that's very briefly - threaten to make this game competitive.

But in almost every other respect, this was the Guardiola blueprint being executed in vivid Technicolor, and on the day rivals Manchester United and Liverpool bored everyone senseless at Anfield, a victory for the purists.

United could win this intriguing title race but if City do - and they threw down another extraordinary marker at the Etihad Stadium yesterday - it will be by persistently going for the jugular. And Sergio Aguero didn't even get off the bench.

There were so many good performances from a City perspective but it was one of the relative few not to get on the scoresheet who conducted the whole glorious production. Guardiola felt Mauricio Pochettino had got the wrong end of the stick when he got the hump over the City manager's recent reference to Tottenham as the "Harry Kane team" but, just as Spurs are so much less without the England striker, so this City side are so much more with De Bruyne providing the ammunition for a fearsome attack.

Stoke manager Mark Hughes claimed De Bruyne was "head and shoulders above anyone else in the Premier League" and it is becoming increasingly hard to disagree.

It was a minefield trying to pick a highlight. De Bruyne's gorgeous low pass that must have covered 30-plus yards before racing into that space between a despairing Geoff Cameron and Jack Butland for Leroy Sane to steer home City's sixth was the work of a master craftsman.

But as good as the pass that cut open Stoke's poor defence in the lead-up to City's second in the 19th minute? It will be watched and re-watched time and again this weekend and beyond, it was that good. Stoke's players thought De Bruyne was shaping to shoot when he collected Sane's pass on the edge of the penalty area but the Belgian had other ideas and, with wonderful disguise, sent both the helpless Kurt Zouma and Kevin Wimmer one way while sliding a pass into the gaping hole he had created for himself.

Sane was the grateful recipient and he had the simple task of squaring for Sterling to side-foot home. Guardiola celebrated jubilantly from the touchline, hands above his head applauding, a beaming smile on his face.

"I am manager but I'm a spectator, too, you have to enjoy it," he said. "So in that moment everyone expected Kevin to shoot, you don't expect him to pass back into the same position he received the ball from.

"Again, we're talking about Kevin. He's such a dynamic player, always picks the right pass at the right tempo. When he has the ball, the wingers, the strikers, they know to move because the ball is coming their way. He's a big, talented player."

They kill you in bursts, this City side. Three goals in 10 minutes in the first half, three goals in seven minutes in the second half after Mame Biram Diouf and an own goal from Kyle Walker had given Stoke some misguided hope of making a dramatic comeback.

As shocked as he was by his side's defending, Hughes admitted at times Stoke had been powerless to do anything to thwart City and De Bruyne especially.

"He is head and shoulders above anyone else in the Premier League," Hughes said.

"If we are honest, which we are, it probably flattered us at 3-2, but people like De Bruyne see this isn't acceptable, grab the initiative and take the game away from you. The first half we were really poor but some of the goals we couldn't do anything about because of the quality of the passes and some of the strikes. We're not the first to come here and get turned over and clearly we won't be the last."

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