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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Pep Guardiola has 'no doubt' Kevin de Bruyne is a contender for Ballon d'Or

The Belgian has 14 assists in the Premier League this season, but getting Manchester City into the latter stages of the Champions League will help the Belgian playmaker's cause

Manchester City's Kevin de Bruyne, centre, runs at the Leicester City defence. Andrew Yates / Reuters
Manchester City's Kevin de Bruyne, centre, runs at the Leicester City defence. Andrew Yates / Reuters

Sergio Aguero left the Etihad Stadium on Saturday with the match ball. In one sense, it was a formality, an automatic reward for his 12th Manchester City hat-trick and the third time he scored at least four. Not in another: he had to wrestle the ball from Kevin de Bruyne.

The Belgian had recorded a treble of his own, a hat-trick of assists in the 5-1 win over Leicester City. If he was denied a memento, a more meaningful recognition of his excellence could yet come. Pep Guardiola managed Lionel Messi when the Argentine first won the Ballon d’Or. The City manager believes the Belgian’s consistent brilliance should put him in contention for the 2018 award. “No doubt,” Guardiola said. “He is not one game. It’s the whole season every three days playing that way.”

There was one caveat, and it relates to Tuesday's date in Basel. “He knows and everyone knows to be there you have to win titles, and titles and titles,” added Guardiola. “Especially one.” That one is the Uefa Champions League; the decade-long duopoly of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi has been based on conquering the continent.

City have reached a solitary quarter-final. “You have to be there in the latter stages,” Guardiola warned. “Without the latter stages you will not be nominated.” The contradiction in De Bruyne’s character is that a footballer who can play with such imagination on the pitch can be so matter of fact off it. A self-effacing figure abides by the team ethic, rather than touting his own credentials.

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“I do everything to win titles with the team,” the Belgian said. “What happens after is an extra. I am very pleased with the way everything is going for me. I am playing this way because the team is playing this way. It makes it easier for me; it makes it easier for them. At the end, if you get an individual honour it is beautiful.”

Some of the beauty in City’s football has stemmed from De Bruyne’s passing and crossing. His assist for Raheem Sterling’s opener against Leicester was bent with precision into the winger’s path. His ball for Aguero’s first was deliberate, slow and curling, like a golfer weighting a putt.

“Sometimes things come off,” De Bruyne said modestly. Often, in his case. “The way I am playing is very consistent. I am happy with that.”

He has created the most chances of anyone in Europe’s top five leagues. While his injured teammate Benjamin Mendy joked on Twitter than he was up to 36944 assists for the season, the fact is that he now has 14 in the Premier League; it is not inconceivable he could break Thierry Henry’s divisional record of 20. Some are about angles, some about the vision to see something before everyone else, some about the long-range distribution to split a defence from deep. They illustrate his versatility and Guardiola highlighted it by reeling off the positions De Bruyne can play: winger, attacking midfielder, holding midfielder.

He has played more minutes than any other City player this season. That packed schedule explains why he is able to shrug off Guardiola’s praise. “When I am busy playing football I don't care,” he said. “I am doing what I have to do.”

He is doing it with greater regularity than before. “Every team in the world would love to have him,” said Aguero, a beneficiary of his supply line. If the latter stages of the Champions League may prove that, the voting for the annual awards may reflect it. De Bruyne is the favourite to be named Footballer of the Year. Winning the Ballon d’Or would represent reaching another level altogether.