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WATCH: Why Belgium might dominate at the World Cup
There are very few, if any, teams across the globe with the kind of talent Belgium possesses, and so its failure to adequately compete for the World Cup title four years ago was one of the hugest disappointments in the tournament.
Foes remain wary of the Red Devils, for good reason: There’s greater coherence to their game under Spanish manager Roberto Martinez, and midfield general Kevin De Bruyne’s evolution into one of the game’s premier playmakers provides a foundation that was missing in Brazil.
De Bruyne, 26, was part of that 2014 team, and he fared well, winning Man of the Match honors after creating the first goal in Belgium’s 2-1 comeback win over Algeria in its group opener and scoring the first overtime goal in the 2-1 round-of-16 triumph over the U.S.
He was a rising star in Brazil, and now he’s a master, the pivotal figure as Manchester City smashed nearly every English Premier League record en route to the championship this season, giving performances that surely will place him in the thick of the conversation when the world-player-of-the-year honors are parceled out come autumn.
Few others head to Russia from as great a height as De Bruyne, who led Europe’s five big leagues with 16 assists — 21 in all encounters, to go with a dozen goals — as architect of an attack that scored an EPL-record 106 goals en route to 32 wins and 100 points, also all-time bests. He narrowly lost the EPL top-player honors to Liverpool’s Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah, a decision that stunned many.
“He can do everything on the pitch,” City manager Pep Guardiola told Sky Sports about midway through the season. “In terms of mentality, he never hides. The big players you realize in the bad moments — the bad moments in terms of 75 minutes, we are losing, how you react in that situation. At 4-0, everybody is a top-class player, the important time is when you are in the bad moments.”
De Bruyne, Guardiola told the Independent, “is one of the best players I have ever seen in my life.”
He showed such promise — and some real huevos — while still in his teens, joining Belgian club Genk and soon barking orders at the veterans.
“He got frustrated as he saw things other players didn’t,” former Genk captain David Hubert told Bleacher Report. “He would then give them the solutions and tell them to make certain runs so they were in the right position.
“Kevin was not just talk. He was doing it on the pitch. He was speaking with his feet and his mouth. We were soon in awe of him.”
He led Genk to the Belgian title at 19, ended up at Chelsea, which sent him on loan to Werder Bremen, where he won the Bundesliga’s best-young player away, but never gave him a real shot. He escaped to Wolfsburg after the 2014 World Cup and had a remarkable campaign, scoring 16 goals with 28 assists in 51 games — 10 and 21 in 34 league matches — as the club finished second to Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. De Bruyne was the Bundesliga’s player of the year.
Manchester City swooped in, spending more than $70 million, and De Bruyne steadily has grown over three seasons, and especially after Guardiola arrived at the start of the 2016 campaign. Often playing as a deep-lying playmaker — something of a “false 8” — he’s dished out 44 assists while scoring 19 goals the past two seasons. He’s the Blues’ creative force, marrying superb vision, an unerring ability to deliver a perfectly weighted pass, and a good strike on net from distance to uncommon drive.
Guardiola considers De Bruyne second only to Lionel Messi in today’s game.
“Messi is on a table on his own …,” he told the BBC. “But the table beside, Kevin can sit there.”That’s a elevated platform, and if he can duplicate in Russia the kind of magic he’s dispensed for City the past couple of years, it’s possible Belgium will be celebrating come July 15.