Kevin De Bruyne is eight seasons into Manchester City’s increasingly epic quest and summed it up in eight words. “We just haven’t done the end bit yet,” said the only man ever to captain City in a Champions League final. The end has instead come in one final, two semi-finals, three quarter-finals and a last-16 tie in his time at City. For De Bruyne, who turns 32 in June, the end could come with arguably the greatest player in City’s history having the bittersweet tag of the best footballer of his generation to never win the Champions League.
Take the view that Kylian Mbappe – and his City teammate Erling Haaland – are in a younger generation and there is the sense that De Bruyne is the odd man out, the one lacking the most coveted medal in the club game. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have won the Champions League. So have Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez and Neymar. His long-time Belgium colleague Eden Hazard was at least an unused substitute in Real Madrid’s final win last year. De Bruyne, in contrast, exited the 2021 final with concussion and in tears after a shuddering collision with Antonio Rudiger. City lost.
It may be the closest he ever comes. And yet, if he accepts judgments on his career will revolve around the Champions League, he is adamant he will not lament the trophies he did not win. “Not really,” he said. “I don’t regret the things I do. We’ve done really well in the Champions League and I know people base everything on only winning but I feel there’s been a lot of circumstances in these kind of games – the Madrid game, the Tottenham game where we deserved to go through but didn’t.
“I want to win it but I know as long as we don’t I’ll come here and get the same questions and I’m fine because people judge you on that. I don’t see it that way because you could win the Champions League and not anything else then you will be called the best in Europe but I just don’t know. What are the criteria of being the best team? Everybody has their own opinion on it and we want to be the best possible every year. In eight years it’s been pretty great.”
Certainly City’s exits have often come among great entertainment. They have become specialists in near-misses, contriving to find ways of departing the competition when scoring plenty of goals. They won 4-3 in the second leg against Spurs in 2019, with De Bruyne producing one of the great performances in vain. They beat Real Madrid 4-3 in the semi-final first leg last year. They scored six times over two legs against Monaco in 2017. They went out on each occasion.
There is another theme. When City win major knockout ties – against Paris Saint-Germain in 2016, or Real in 2020, or Borussia Dortmund and PSG in 2021 – it tends to be based on a stellar De Bruyne display. He has been a talismanic force.
And yet he finds himself in a peculiar position. He has been named in Fifpro’s XI of the year for 2020, 2021, and 2022. He has spent some of 2023 on City’s bench. He has not started four of the last 11 matches for which he was available: as two of them were against Tottenham, it was scarcely a question of squad rotation.
No one has ever played more games for Pep Guardiola than De Bruyne, with 300. Yet if he has been a constant in the Catalan’s reign at City, the manager feels more of a critic now. “He can be better,” Guardiola said in October. “He is not playing at his top level, Kevin, not yet.” In December, he reflected that De Bruyne has to be grumpy to be at his best. In January and February, he was omitted for defining games.
And yet De Bruyne is, as Guardiola will readily admit, a unique talent. “He has an incredible ability to make an assist, to score goals and see passes like no one else,” said the manager. “But I always have belief they will increase and will get better when the simple things, like don’t lose the ball.” Perhaps De Bruyne’s ambition collides with Guardiola’s preference for control. Risking losing the ball is integral to the Belgian; defence-splitting passes are rarely the simple thing.
There is statistical proof of his prowess. Even when sitting out 351 minutes in City’s last nine matches, he is still three assists clear at the top of the Premier League charts. While his goals have become fewer this season, with the most prolific campaign of his career followed by just five so far, he is on course to record a career-best total of assists. He has 17 so far. He is Haaland’s supplier-in-chief even as the Norwegian’s arrival means his days as a false nine are over.
It was a sign of his versatility. “People say when you get older you go lower and for me it is the opposite. I’ve been low, up, left, right,” he said. “I feel I change position less now because the coach is the same but whatever will come I will try and to do the job but I will never be offended. I just do what I do.”
And, arguably, no one does it better. “I’m a perfectionist,” De Bruyne said. “Whatever I do in football or life, I will always want it to be 100 per cent.” And the problem for him is that City’s record in the Champions League remains imperfect.