Kevin De Bruyne’s Champions League masterclass for Man City shows Real Madrid may have signed wrong Belgian

James Robson
Getty Images

Real Madrid may be asking themselves if they signed the wrong Belgian last summer.

While Eden Hazard has endured an injury-hit first season at the Bernabeu, Kevin De Bruyne brought this iconic stadium to its knees.

His sheer force of will turned another Champions League dud for Manchester City into a landmark result in this competition.

A false 9 but a very real inspiration, he grabbed this round of 16 tie by the scruff of the neck and put the Premier League champions within reach of the quarter-finals at the expense of the kings of Europe.

Trailing 1-0 after Isco’s strike on the hour, Pep Guardiola was rewarded for his bravery – throwing Raheem Sterling into the action in a desperate bid to salvage the night.

But it still required De Bruyne to pull the strings – and ultimately pull Real apart.

He twisted and turned like an old-fashioned winger on the left-hand side of the box before spinning and delivering a cross for the brilliant Gabriel Jesus to head past Thibaut Courtois.

Then, with seven minutes remaining on the clock, he showed nerves of steel to fire home a penalty that gives City a lead to defend back at the Etihad – and a mountain to climb for Real.

There is no greater compliment to pay De Bruyne than to say he looked completely at home in the land of the Galacticos.

Striding through midfield – overshadowing that other master of his art, Luka Modric, in the process – the 28-year-old was at the heart of this iconic win for City.

It was a victory that may have exorcised their ghosts in this competition and announced their arrival on the grandest stage of European football.

The last time they came to this ground they bowed out with barely a whimper in the semi-final in 2016. That was the Real of peak Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, Modric and Marcelo.

Without the injured Hazard, the Spanish giants lacked that fear factor – lacked Galacticos.

Which is why it had the potential to be so damaging if City had faltered again against a side that seem to reach the latter stages of the Champions League by muscle memory alone.

Talisman: Kevin De Bruyne lit up the Bernabeu during Manchester City's comeback win over Real Madrid (Getty Images)

Guardiola needed his own talisman to rewrite the script and De Bruyne was his man – even if it required an inspired substitution and tactical tinkering to find the breakthrough.

Sterling – one of several surprise exclusions from the starting XI - was summoned from the bench. His arrival saw Jesus switched from the left-wing role he’d carried out so diligently to a more orthodox centre-forward position.

With someone to aim for, De Bruyne was at his deadliest, delivering the cross for Jesus to cancel out Isco’s strike.

When Sterling tempted Dani Carvajal to send him tumbling in the box, De Bruyne was unflinching, placing the ball on the spot.

Guardiola has told the Belgium international that only by winning the Champions League can he begin to challenge the supremacy of Lionel Messi and Ronaldo. This was the type of performance to give rise to the belief he could do that this year.

"He's the best midfielder in the world right now," Rio Ferdinand told BT Sport. “I don't think there's anyone near him in terms of what he can do.

"He does everything: his athleticism, running away from people, his pass appreciation, his decision-making in the final third.

"I would say 99 per cent of the time, he gets it right."

In response to Ferdinand’s glowing assessment, Guardiola said: “Well I’m not going to talk back to him.”

Eden Hazard has struggled with injury since moving to the Bernabeu - did Real sign the wrong Belgian star? (REUTERS)

The tie is not over yet and Guardiola will expect a response from Zinedine Zidane in the return leg.

The problem for Real’s manager is that his stars are losing their sparkle and the Galacticos that elevated them to an unprecedented hat-trick of Champions League crowns have either gone or gone past their peak.

Guardiola, meanwhile, will almost certainly bring back Sterling, Sergio Aguero and possibly David Silva for the return leg.

But after this showing, there is no-one Real will fear more than City’s own talisman, De Bruyne.

Read more

Guardiola reveals 10-day Real Madrid binge session key to Man City win

De Bruyne: Man City stars still get surprised by Guardiola tactics

Man City player ratings: De Bruyne steps up after Sterling introduced