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In-form De Bruyne stepping up to lead Man City’s fight against ‘same stuff’ Champions League failures

11:38 GMT+4 12/04/2022
Kevin De Bruyne
The Belgian star is hoping to end a run of hard-luck stories in Europe but must first get past a dogged Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals

Kevin De Bruyne couldn’t hide his frustration when Manchester City crashed out of the Champions League to mid-table Ligue 1 side Lyon two years ago.

“Different year, same stuff,” was his honest response following the shock quarter-final defeat in Lisbon.

That was the latest in a line of miserable exits and hard-luck stories that have kept City waiting to get their hands on the European trophy.

Away-goal exits to Monaco and Tottenham, refereeing controversies against Liverpool, a semi-final defeat to Real Madrid, when they failed to threaten in a 1-0 loss – there have been plenty of draining disappointments.

Last year was as close as City got, making it all the way to the final and a clash with a Chelsea side that finished 19 points behind them in the Premier League.

But there was to be more pain, literally for De Bruyne when he was forced off early with a fractured nose and eye socket and concussion, in a flat 1-0 defeat.

Many of City’s most recent legends – Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kompany for example - have left the club without securing a Champions League winners’ medal and, turning 31 in June, the race is on for De Bruyne to ensure he doesn’t follow them.

A major part of Belgium’s golden generation that has been regularly the top-ranked nation in the world but failed to win an international trophy, De Bruyne deserves to win one of the major honours.

At City now, he’s leading the challenge for a treble, with the Champions League trophy remaining the one that the club covets more than any other.

Pep Guardiola’s side head to Spain for their quarter-final second leg with Atletico Madrid holding a slender 1-0 advantage, courtesy of a De Bruyne strike in the first leg.

And the City boss is thankful to have such a creative force that can make a difference, particularly against risk-averse Diego Simeone, who lined his side up in an already infamous 5-5-0 formation that failed to produce a single shot at the Etihad Stadium.

The Premier League champions fared little better, although they at least tried to be creative, and when Phil Foden carved open the best opportunity, De Bruyne slotted the ball past Jan Oblak.

His opening goal in the thrilling 2-2 draw with Liverpool on Sunday was his sixth goal in six games and, without an orthodox striker, De Bruyne – so often the player that lays on opportunities for his team-mates – has stepped up to make the difference with key contributions.

“I like that he is a player who does not just make a lot of assists, he is scoring a lot. I told him he has to score more goals to reach another stage,” Guardiola said on Sunday.

“He is scoring a lot of goals and making chances, knowing the position he is playing is so difficult against Liverpool because they are so narrow. And his vision for the last pass is exceptional.

“It’s true he struggled in the first part of the season a lot with the injuries from the Champions League final and the European Championship.”

Guardiola believes that De Bruyne is back playing at his highest level, whilst acknowledging exactly what a standard that is.

From a fifth-minute opener to a stunning 94th-minute pass that gave Riyad Mahrez the chance to snatch a victory against Liverpool, his full qualities were on show.

The incredible range of passes, the leadership that exudes confidence and an astonishing work rate, De Bruyne led from the front in a clash between the two best clubs in England, and possibly the two best sides in Europe, with both on a collision course for the Champions League final in Paris.

“If a team comes here to play, it is always a good game and Liverpool came here to play the way they play, so that's why it has always been good,” he told reporters after the match.

Liverpool were open and attacking but finding that same space against such a well-disciplined Atletico side is far more difficult with the Spanish champions the masters of keeping games tight and happy for both sides to have few chances.

De Bruyne is expecting a different game at a passionate Wanda Metropolitano, although Simeone may not want to gamble too early.

“Some games are tough – against Atletico, where you play against such a defensive wall, it is not the best game to play or watch,” he said. “There's nothing we can do about it.

“I think it will be a little bit tight at the beginning. Depending on the score, it has to change if it stays this way but I don't expect it to be a similar game.”

It will be the third of a critical run of four matches with Liverpool again in an FA Cup semi-final on Saturday.

De Bruyne is no stranger to punishing schedules but conceded it was tough in the early part of the season as he recovered from an ankle injury suffered during the Euros.

The commitment as ever was there – and he slumped to the floor with fatigue after an injury-time winner at Arsenal at the turn of the year. But he's ready for the final push.

“Even if you wanted to, you don't have the time to think about it,” he added. “Monday is a recovery day, Tuesday we leave for Madrid and it is the same for the cup game.

“It would have been nice to think about the end of the season but you don't get the time. That is maybe a good thing because you just play, play, play and then we will see what happens.”

There’s no time for a break – not with a first-ever Champions League to win.