Manchester City s Kevin De Bruyne, center, celebrates after scoring his side s first goal during the Champions League semifinal first leg soccer match between Real Madrid and Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, May 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Of course, this was no title match for Manchester City — it was the first leg of the Champions League semifinals — but with the eyes of the world on the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, it sure felt like one.
Who else, then, should step up but De Bruyne, the man who delivers for City on the big occasion time and again.
The Belgium playmaker looked to the sky and raised both his arms before performing a rare knee slide after his long-range equalizer for City in the 1-1 draw against Real Madrid on Tuesday.
De Bruyne knew how significant the goal was. How good it was, too.
He is making a habit of it.
City has played Real Madrid in the Champions League’s knockout stage in three of the last four seasons, and De Bruyne has scored each time. And against Atletico Madrid last year, City won 1-0 after two fiery matches in the quarterfinals and it was De Bruyne with the only goal.
His goals in the final stretch of this season, as City chases the Premier League-Champions League-FA Cup treble, have come against Liverpool, Arsenal (two goals) and now Madrid.
In only one of his last eight games has De Bruyne not scored or had an assist.
Erling Haaland has earned most of the plaudits of late because of a scoring record not seen in the modern era in English soccer, but underpinning it all is De Bruyne with his artistry and creative genius.
Maybe this is the season when De Bruyne gets his career-defining moment in the Champions League.
Until now, the indelible image of him in the competition is from the 2021 final, when he staggered off the field before the hour mark of City’s underwhelming 1-0 loss to Chelsea with a fractured eye socket and a broken nose following a clash of heads with Antonio Rudiger.
To say De Bruyne has unfinished business in the Champions League is an understatement. He couldn’t be doing any more to get his team back into the final.
And he appears to have gained new confidence in the final months of a season that took a worrying turn during the six weeks immediately after the World Cup, when De Bruyne — English soccer’s player of the year in 2020 and ’21 — was dropped for some matches and City manager Pep Guardiola went public with his criticism of the midfielder’s performances and condition.
If that was a tactic to shake De Bruyne out of his torpor, it has worked.
Now he either plays as the most attacking of City’s central midfielders, running off and behind Haaland against teams — such as Arsenal last month — who press high up the field. Or he has to take a deeper position against opponents content to sit back and defend, relying instead on his delivery from out wide or long-range shots.
Against Madrid, it was the latter.
“We see it every single day in training — you wouldn’t choose anyone else for it to fall to,” City winger Jack Grealish said of De Bruyne’s 25-meter strike from Ilkay Gundogan’s lay-off at the edge of the area.
Seven of De Bruyne’s 14 goals in the Champions League have come from outside the area.
Stop Haaland in the penalty box and teams still have De Bruyne to deal with outside it.
That’s the challenge facing Madrid in the second leg at Etihad Stadium next week.
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