It would be no exaggeration to say Kevin De Bruyne was devastated when he left the pitch at Juventus’ Allianz Stadium during the international break, having seen a two-goal lead thrown away against France and hopes of winning the Nations League ended.
The golden generation of Belgium players missed out on another chance of winning a trophy, and there may be only one more left in Qatar next year before a new era establishes itself.
It is testament to Pep Guardiola’s man management that De Bruyne has come through the toughest summer of his career and is now starting to return to the form that has earned him the past two PFA Player of the Year awards.
De Bruyne was captain against Burnley and kept the armband even when Ruben Dias came off the bench, despite the Portugal centre-back outranking him in Manchester City’s leadership group. City’s captain had sealed victory with his second goal in as many games after Bernardo Silva had opened the scoring – and eventually was substituted to a standing ovation and an embrace from Guardiola.
His run of injuries started on the eve of the European Championship when he suffered a fracture of the nose and eye socket in the Champions League final, which ruled him out of Belgium’s first game. He then played through the pain barrier during the tournament in an attempt to finally win with his country. Despite a partial tear of the syndesmosis in an ankle, he played in the quarter-finals but could not prevent defeat by Italy.
Guardiola has eased him back into City’s season after a surprise place on the bench on the opening weekend. It was another month before he played again, against RB Leipzig, by which time it was revealed he had been replaced by Ilkay Gundogan as vice-captain and Dias was also above him in the pecking order.
City’s captaincy is decided by vote and De Bruyne could come back into the reckoning later in his career, which would be fitting for City’s most important player of the Guardiola era. While there is debate around how Guardiola’s forwards should line up, there are no doubts over De Bruyne’s position. As he showed again against Burnley, his absence weakens City more than any other player’s. Such is his consistency, it is expected that he runs games. The opposition are defending deeper to try to stop his looping far-post crosses that have garnered so many assists. Barring injury, he will almost certainly start against Club Brugge in the Champions League tomorrow.
Guardiola will also have Ederson and Gabriel Jesus in the squad as they flew straight to Belgium after playing for Brazil, a red-list country, during the international break.
“They are in Belgium right now,” Guardiola said. “They told me that they can play, but we will see in what condition they are.”
Telegraph Media Group Limited