Real Madrid managed to blunt Manchester City’s goalscoring phenom Erling Haaland in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final, but there was no stopping the brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne.
The Belgian’s thunderbolt at the Bernabeu left the tie delicately balanced at 1-1 heading into Wednesday’s second leg, but with City oozing confidence thanks to a 100 percent record in 14 home games in 2023.
Pep Guardiola’s men are four matches away from becoming just the second side to ever win the treble of Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup in the same season.
A fifth league title in six seasons is as good as won with a maximum of three points needed from City’s final three games.
Manchester United will have their chance to prevent the Red Devils’ treble in 1998/99 being matched in the FA Cup final.
But with whoever emerges victorious at the Etihad big favourites to be crowned European champions against Inter Milan or Milan in Istanbul next month, Madrid are the biggest obstacle between City and immortality.
Real’s own run to Champions League glory last season was fuelled by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois’ perceived slight at his reputation in England.
“I don’t think I get enough respect, especially in England,” said the former Chelsea stopper after his man-of-the-match performance denied Liverpool in the final.
For his international teammate De Bruyne, it is the opposite.
Widely considered one of the Premier League’s finest imports, the 31-year-old has twice been crowned players’ player of the year by his peers alongside a growing haul of 10 major trophies under Guardiola.
But City’s failure to get over the line in the Champions League and the Belgian golden generation’s lack of a major tournament victory means he has not always commanded the same level of respect on the continent.
De Bruyne’s third-placed finish the Ballon d’Or voting last year is the highest of his career.
That could all change should he be the one to make the difference and put Madrid to the sword, as he did in the first leg.
“I’ve come across a lot of players, played with a lot of players, saw a lot of players, played against some of the greatest. I think Kevin, his brain is the best I’ve ever seen,” said Arsenal and Barcelona great Thierry Henry, who worked with De Bruyne during two spells as an assistant coach with Belgium.
“I saw him for six years on and off with Belgium. You love the man a bit more because I saw stuff he did in training and in games. He’s unbelievable. His brain, I’m still thinking about some stuff I’ve seen, he’s on a different planet.”
Despite the attention on Haaland’s half-century of goals in his first season in England, De Bruyne has continued to be crucial to City’s success.
He scored twice as the defending champions landed a telling blow on Arsenal in the Premier League title race last month.
But creativity rather than goals is the currency in which De Bruyne’s influence is best measured.
He has 27 assists in 43 appearances this season, becoming the fastest player to 100 Premier League assists in the process.
“He’s not comfortable to play with a pause, he needs to play with speed,” said Guardiola.
“It is so difficult to find a player that plays at this speed and has the ability to see the passes more than when is more calm or walking.
“The normal players, when you walk, you see everything. But when you run a high speed, you are not able to see what happened. He’s completely the opposite. That’s why he is an exceptional player.”
Much like his manager, De Bruyne’s achievements at City have always come with the caveat of never having won the Champions League.
Win on Wednesday and it is hard to see how they will be stopped.
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