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It would be no exaggeration to say Kevin De Bruyne was devastated when he left the pitch at Juventus Stadium during the international break, having seen a two-goal lead thrown away to France and hopes of winning the Nations League ended.
The golden generation of Belgium players missed out on another chance of winning a trophy and there may only be one more chance in Qatar next year before a new era establishes itself.
It is testament to Pep Guardiola’s man-management that De Bruyne has come through the toughest summer of his career and is now starting to return to the form that has seen him win the last two PFA Player Of The Year Awards.
De Bruyne was captain against Burnley and kept the armband even when Ruben Dias came off the bench, despite the Portugal centre-back outranking him in Manchester City’s leadership group. City’s skipper had sealed victory with his second goal in as many games and eventually was substituted to a standing ovation and an embrace from Guardiola.
His run of injuries started on the eve of the Euros when he suffered a fracture of the nose and eye socket in the Champions League final which ruled him out of Belgium’s first game. He then played through the pain barrier during the tournament in a bid to finally win with his country. Despite a partial tear of the syndesmosis in his ankle, he played in the quarter-finals but could not prevent defeat to Italy.
Guardiola has eased him back into City’s season after a surprise place on the bench on the opening weekend of the campaign. It was another month before he played again against RB Leipzig, by which time it was revealed he had been replaced by Ilkay Gundogan as vice-captain and Dias also above him in the pecking order.
City’s captaincy is decided by vote and De Bruyne could come back into the reckoning later in his career, which would be fitting for City’s most important player of the Guardiola era. While there is debate around how Guardiola’s forwards should line up, there are no doubts over De Bruyne’s position.
As he showed again against Burnley, his absence weakens City more than any other player. Such is his consistency, it is now expected that he would run games. Opposition are also defending deeper to try stopping his looping far-post cross which has garnered so many assists.
Barring injury, he will almost certainly start against Club Brugge on Tuesday in a Champions League match that has taken on greater significance following the defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the last round of group matches.
Guardiola will also have Ederson and Gabriel Jesus in the squad as they flew straight to Belgium after playing for Brazil, a red-list country, in the international break.
“They are in Belgium right now. They told me that they can play but we will see in what condition they are,” said Guardiola. “We have time to prepare the training session because we have to train here.
“But we sent them there because the day after the game in Bruges they can come back and make a normal life. If they had come back here directly to Manchester they would have been isolated for 10 days in a hotel and we didn't want that and that is why they travelled to Belgium. Maybe they will be able to play and that is good news and after Brighton, the Carabao Cup and all the other games we have ahead of us they will be ready.”
Bernardo Silva opened the scoring for City against Burnley, who were encouraged by Nathan Collins’ performance at centre-back next to James Tarkowski.
“I think it is a learning curve. Nathan is still learning. He has got a really good attitude about how he goes about his business every day,” said Burnley manager Sean Dyche. “Tarky I thought was outstanding. Good signs for Nathan, he is learning well. It is not easy coming to these parts but he has looked nice and calm, just getting on with it.”