Realistic Kevin de Bruyne 'won't compare myself to last year' after returning Manchester City to top of Premier League

Midfielder still feeling his way back even as he gives Pep Guardiola options in midfield ahead of business end of season

Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne reacts during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Cardiff City at Etihad stadium in Manchester, England, Wednesday, April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
Powered by automated translation

It feels an unlikely combination. Manchester City remain in contention for an unprecedented quadruple. Their best player has bit a bit-part presence.

If it emphasises the achievements of the others, it feels all the more improbable that City are still fighting on four fronts when Kevin de Bruyne has only completed 90 minutes three times in the Premier League.

A dominant display against Cardiff City brought back echoes of his stellar 2017/18, when only Mohamed Salah’s brilliance denied him the individual honours, even if De Bruyne was honest enough to concede his rasping opener was a mishit. “I knew what I was doing, but it didn’t go off,” he said.

Yet if it prompted questions if De Bruyne is back to his best, his answer came in the negative.

“I don’t think I’m going to be like last year,” he said. “I try to be at the best level possible but I’m just trying to help the team win some titles.

"Whatever happens, happens for me this year. I want to play at my best level but I won’t compare myself to last year when I played 70 games and was on such a roll.”

His has been a stop-start season. “Mentally, it’s been tough because you can be injured once or twice but to be injured four times is hard work,” he said.

The first of his comebacks backfired and Pep Guardiola has been more cautious with a man who invariably wants to play since then.

The very fact that De Bruyne began and finished the Cardiff match while Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and David Silva were unused substitutes pointed to the rested trio starting Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Brighton.

The proximity of Tuesday’s Uefa Champions League clash with Tottenham Hotspur and a fixture list that pits City with Spurs three times in April, even before a Manchester derby and then May’s potential Champions League semi-final, means rotation will be required.

That may pose issues at left-back, where the in-form Oleksandr Zinchenko joined Fabian Delph among the sidelined, and at a point when Benjamin Mendy is out of favour, while they wait to see if striker Sergio Aguero will be fit to return at Wembley.

Yet City’s options are increasing in midfield. Phil Foden was the second best player on the pitch against Cardiff, outshone only by De Bruyne, and his forceful solo runs showed the teenager has acquired the power to accompany his technique.

His first Premier League start felt belated but the reality is that Foden is still only 18. De Bruyne was playing for Genk at that age, spared from scrutiny.

“You can’t compare what happens with anybody else in their career,” the senior midfielder said. “The pressure is more from outside. When England players come to the fore, the English people are on it.

"To play here, in any top team in England, where you have 20 star players who are all top internationals who have played five to 10 years for their countries and for big teams, and have the minutes he has, is incredible.

"The coach wants to win every game and every cup, and to put young guys in… the task is sometimes very difficult for a manager.”

Foden’s bow came on the night that Callum Hudson-Odoi, another Under 17 World Cup winner, also began a top-flight game for the first time. De Bruyne’s Belgium twice beat England to finish third in the World Cup but their talent has made him a fan. “If Phil progresses well he has a chance to go to the Euros next year,” he added.

“I told the England guys a week ago that you should win the Euros. They are favourites, with France.”