Pep Guardiola believes Kevin De Bruyne may have been 'helped' by suffering the two separate knee ligament injuries which have limited him to just three league appearances for Manchester City this season.
De Bruyne is in contention to return for City against Everton today after training pain-free this week, having not played since suffering ligament damage in his left knee against Fulham last month.
The Belgian, who was also sidelined for two months back in August by a separate knee ligament injury in his right knee, has made just five appearances for City so far in this campaign.
Guardiola was reluctant to blame De Bruyne's involvement at the World Cup with Belgium for his injury problems, though admitted that the midfielder had ended last season's title-winning campaign "exhausted" and believes City's Player of the Year may be better off for the enforced break.
"I think Kevin finished last season exhausted, it was so tough for him," Guardiola said. "He played a lot of minutes, a lot. And it was an incredible performance and after that he went to the World Cup and when he came back I had the feeling that he was a little bit tired still. Sometimes people recover quite well, sometimes mentally it takes time, so that's why maybe we don't want to be injured, but maybe it helped us.
"Now he's fresh in his mind, he is recovered and now he tries again to avoid the injuries and play regularly and of course he is going to be important for us, he is a special player for us."
Guardiola added: "I said it from the beginning when he got an injury the first time and the second time, we are going to miss him.
"It's important because of course he has to recover his full condition, he has to compete with the players who have done incredibly good so far, but of course when you have just more players we can rotate it more and we have competition between them it's much better.
"Of course it's good news when he is coming back."
City suffered their first defeat of the Premier League season at Stamford Bridge last weekend and dropped off the top of the table for the first time since September. Liverpool, who welcome Manchester United to Anfield tomorrow, sit one point clear at the summit.
Despite City's dominance of the top flight last year, Guardiola is not surprised that this year's title race promises to be much closer, as he believes the chasing pack have significantly improved.
"I would say it's incredible that people say it's unusual that Manchester City are in this position," he said. "I think in our long history it's more in the second position than the first.
"It's part of the competition. We competed with the best starts ever from Liverpool, the best start ever for Tottenham, the best start ever from Chelsea and still we are there.
"We cannot be far away from the leaders because I think they will drop few points, especially Liverpool. Arsenal, 20 games unbeaten in all competitions! The level increased a lot compared to the last two or three seasons, how the big teams are playing and losing few points."
Guardiola has previous experience of close title races, having beaten Real Madrid to three La Liga titles in his four years at Barcelona, and he believes this year's Premier League poses a comparable challenge.
"It's quite similar," the City manager said. "It can have that feeling. It's just trying to win every game, to be there and when you are in front try to keep the momentum. The players know it.
"But the feeling is quite similar, that's true. Madrid is always demanding a lot and we knew it. We could lose games against Real Madrid but we had to win against the others opponents or we were not able to win the title. That's why we won the league with 99 points, 96 points."
Even with Sergio Aguero back in contention after recovering from a groin injury, one of Guardiola's present concerns is Aguero's understudy Gabriel Jesus. The Brazilian has scored just once in the league this season, in a 6-1 victory over Huddersfield Town back in August.
It has been suggested that Jesus is feeling the effects of a knee ligament injury suffered last December and perhaps even a metatarsal injury sustained the February before, though Guardiola believes the 21-year-old is still contributing well.
"I know the strikers live for scoring goals. They feel better. They want to score goals," Guardiola said. "But he's made a lot of assists, his movement's creating spaces for the other ones and still he's a young player." (© Independent News Service)