Tuesday 11 December 2018

Forget calm exterior, De Bruyne craves world attention

Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne during training. Photo: Reuters
Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne during training. Photo: Reuters

James Ducker

If you have not watched the footage of Kevin De Bruyne careering through his Belgium team-mate Adnan Januzaj in training at their base camp in Moscow, it is worth a look.

Januzaj struck a diplomatic tone when quizzed about the incident on Saturday, but it is doubtful he would have been quite so willing to brush it off had he been nursing an injury.

Think of West Bromwich Albion's Matt Phillips taking De Bruyne's Manchester City team-mate Brahim Diaz out at knee height in February and you get an idea of the recklessness of the Belgian's challenge.

If it was De Bruyne's way of telling Januzaj, and the rest of his nation's squad, to up the speed and intensity of training, it was a funny way of going about it and probably caused a moment of alarm for his coach Roberto Martinez.

Most of the time De Bruyne is relaxed to the point of being horizontal. The saliva tests conducted by City's doctors before games reveal his stress levels are so low they are negative, and it is unlikely to be any different when Belgium, England's biggest threat in Group G, kick off their World Cup campaign against Panama in Sochi this afternoon.

But anyone who knows the City midfielder well will vouch that, when he is unhappy with something, he is not afraid to let everyone know in the most uncompromising fashion.

The unsuspecting ball boy who made the mistake of not returning the ball quickly enough to De Bruyne during one game at Wolfsburg can testify to that. "Give me the ball, you motherf*****" De Bruyne screamed at him.

During a half-time TV interview in February 2012 he famously accused his Genk team-mates of not giving their all, saying: "I'm ashamed of them. I suggest that those who don't have a desire to play just leave."

For all the talk that has accompanied the need for Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar to leave a lasting legacy on the World Cup stage, no one should underestimate De Bruyne's desire to prove that he might be just about the best midfielder the planet has to offer at the moment.

De Bruyne may not feel the need to make things all about him in the way that, say, Ronaldo does. Yet Liverpool's Mo Salah picking up the players' and writers' player of the year awards that the Belgian had appeared favourite to win as he drove City towards the league title frustrated him more than he would probably care to disclose.

For all the talent in this Belgium squad, the hopes of a golden generation of players finally delivering on their rich potential at a tournament will rest heavily on the dynamism of De Bruyne.

With the attacking verve of Chelsea's Eden Hazard and the goal threat of Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku supplemented by the most solid defensive foundations, in name at least, De Bruyne does not field a burden in the same way Ronaldo does for Portugal or Messi for Argentina. However, the weight of responsibility is still huge.

He has never spoken publicly about it, and may never do, but there were acute personal issues with which De Bruyne was wrestling at Euro 2016 that explain, in part, why he struggled to make the mark he would have hoped in France.

De Bruyne would be the last one to use those troubles as an excuse, but there is little doubt he has arrived in Russia at the peak of his powers, particularly with regard to his state of mind.

Whether the rigours of a draining campaign with City take their toll physically remains to be seen - he played in 51 of the champions' 56 matches - but the sight of De Bruyne chasing down the ball with all the hunger and intent of early season in the final weeks, with the title already won, would suggest not.

With Hazard, Lukaku and Napoli's in-form Dries Mertens ahead of him, De Bruyne should be providing the bullets for a forward line every bit as mobile and potent as he plays with at City.

Hazard, in particular, must be comforted by the knowledge that if he can make the right runs and movements, De Bruyne will find him with that wand of a right foot.


One of this observer's more pleasurable moments last season was listening to De Bruyne try to explain how he frames some of those logic-bending passes in his mind, a vision that Panama today, Tunisia in Moscow on Saturday and England in Nizhny Novgorod five days later must try to stifle.

"I try to look up as quickly as possible, try to read the situation, but football is so quick, it's just a split-second and then you decide," he said.

"I always try to manage the ball in a way that can help the way my team-mates receive it.

"If you do an outside spin with the ball, it's more difficult to control it, so I try to pass it in a way that allows them to take the ball quicker in their path. That way they may have more of an advantage to score or create themselves." Belgium's rivals can't say they have not been warned. (© The Daily Telegraph)

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