By Associated Press
Kevin De Bruyne might still be short of a crowning, career-defining title that would slot him comfortably among the top stars of his generation.
He may never get it at international level, with Belgium’s “Golden Generation” repeatedly falling short, and being a serial winner of domestic trophies with Manchester City won’t be enough for many — even if, apparently, it is for De Bruyne himself.
So, is it in the Champions League where his big moment will come?
“Obviously,” De Bruyne said, “winning it would change the narrative.”
It has been a tale of pain and massive underachievement so far in Europe’s top competition for the 30-year-old playmaker with magic in his boots and eyes in the back of his head.
Just last year, De Bruyne didn’t last an hour in his first Champions League final before needing to be helped off the field — dazed and confused — after sustaining a fractured nose and eye socket in a collision with Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger. De Bruyne had been subdued in a match City went on to lose 1-0 in Porto.
In 2020, he was part of a City team surprisingly beaten by Lyon in the quarterfinals.
“We need to learn,” De Bruyne grumbled afterward.
And in 2019, he didn’t even start against Tottenham in the first leg of the quarterfinals, which City lost 1-0 before exiting in agonizing circumstances a week later.
Even this season could prove to be a missed opportunity. City battered Real Madrid in the first leg of the semifinals last week, yet only came away with a 4-3 victory at the Etihad Stadium.
The second leg is on Wednesday and De Bruyne is aware the match is in the balance.
“If we play the way we played last week, we have the potential to be one of the best teams (in the world),” he said. “But we have to do that tomorrow night again — if we’re a little below that, there’s a possibility Madrid can win this game.”
De Bruyne scored an early goal and set up another against Madrid to continue his run of inspirational late-season displays. Having taken time to get fully fit after snapping ankle ligaments during last year’s European Championship, De Bruyne is in excellent form and stepping up in the big games.
In his last 10 appearances, he has scored against Manchester United and Liverpool in the Premier League and both Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid in the Champions League. The assists keep flowing from his pinpoint crosses and passes.
The world is still waiting, though, for De Bruyne to put in that man-of-the-match performance in a major final like the Champions League, just to cap a bulging résumé at City containing three Premier League titles, six domestic cups (FA and League), and back-to-back Player of the Year awards (in 2020 and 2021). For some, that would elevate him to greatness.
“For myself, I don’t think it changes the perspective, as a player,” he said. “I know what I’ve done good, I know what I’ve done bad in my career. I’m pretty happy with what I’ve done. Obviously I want to win every trophy I can get, but that’s a hard task. I’d love to win the Champions League.”
De Bruyne was City’s best player on its run to the final last year, including an influential, goal-scoring performance in a win at Paris Saint-Germain in the semifinals that marked a coming of age for the club in the competition.
Under Pep Guardiola’s coaching and thanks to more than a decade of heavy spending by the club’s ownership from Abu Dhabi, City has become a major player in Europe without any hardware to show for it.
“I think we’re in a very good way,” De Bruyne said. “Obviously, the fact we haven’t won it yet will probably be the only criticism we can get. I think, for the rest, we’ve been there loads of times. We’ve always been fighting to win this competition.
“The consistency that we have as a club has been amazing, pretty much as good as anybody else. We just need to try to get over the line.”
De Bruyne isn’t a typical superstar soccer player. Off the field, he likes to live away from the limelight. On it, he is very much a team player, his countless assists seemingly giving him more satisfaction than scoring goals.
Take 10 days ago, for example, when he passed up an opportunity to take a penalty against Watford in the league to allow teammate Gabriel Jesus the chance to complete a hat trick.
“For him, it was important,” De Bruyne said. “I don’t care if I score that penalty — that’s a goal that doesn’t get me further to what I want to achieve.”
Winning the Champions League would.