Manchester City midfielder missed much of the title triumph but an FA Cup final win over Watford would offer consolation
Kevin De Bruyne offers a blunt response when considering whether he has any sympathy for Liverpool after they accumulated 97 points and still finished one behind the champions Manchester City.
“No,” he says. “It’s a remarkable effort but it means that we were just better than them in the end. I don’t feel sorry for them because I don’t think they’d feel sorry for us. I don’t think anybody felt sorry about the way we went out of the Champions League.”
The Belgian is in training kit and soft shoes at the City Football Academy training base on the eve of Saturday’s FA Cup final against Watford. An endearing straight-talker, De Bruyne’s last reference is to how Tottenham Hotspur eliminated City on away goals after Raheem Sterling had a late winner disallowed through a VAR ruling.
Following Sunday’s 4-1 win at Brighton & Hove Albion that confirmed City as back-to-back champions, a film emerged of singing on the club plane as it flew back to Manchester. The song was one City fans have directed at Liverpool and which features a line about their supporters being “battered”, and another that mentions “victims”, which has caused some offence on Merseyside.
De Bruyne’s comments, though, are not related to any of this. And he does soften his stance somewhat regarding Liverpool’s second place. “I know how they feel because you’re going to feel disappointed,” the 27-year-old says. “We’d feel the same if it happened to us. But we’re still competitors. We want to win as much as they do but I can understand the feelings they have.”
He is equally honest when discussing how Pep Guardiola gave him a ticking-off for walking down the tunnel when being substituted against Burton Albion in January.
Frustration had bubbled over after 58 minutes of the 9-0 trouncing of Burton at the Etihad Stadium. Two serious knee injuries meant De Bruyne did not start a Premier League match until the 2-1 Boxing Day defeat at Leicester City. The Carabao Cup game against Nigel Clough’s side was only a 10th appearance this season and a fifth start. When Guardiola replaced him with Phil Foden, De Bruyne stormed past the manager for the dressing room. With a smile he explains why.
“Pep knows [I was frustrated]. After I shouldn’t really have left but sometimes emotions come up and at the time I thought it was a good game for me. It was already 5-0 and at that moment I was like: ‘I need the game time. I can be still important.’”
Was he told off? “Yeah,” De Bruyne says, to laughter. If this illustrates the tight rein Guardiola has on even his brightest stars – the midfielder was City’s 2017-18 player of the season – De Bruyne’s discontent at managing only 11 league starts, and featuring in half (19) of the campaign’s games, is understandable.
The Belgium international’s first injury was to the medial ligaments of his right knee and was suffered during training on 16 August. It came following a substitute appearance in the opening match of the season, a 2-0 win at Arsenal. This ruled him out for two months. After another four appearances he then hurt ligaments in his left knee near the end of a 2-0 Carabao Cup victory against Fulham on 1 November and was out for six weeks.
De Bruyne’s rotten luck was compounded when, after a clear run of fitness, he hurt a hamstring before half-time of the 1-0 victory over Tottenham on 20 April. Initially he thought his season was over but he was able to return for the closing minutes of the victory at Brighton.
De Bruyne says: “It’s been one of those years where I started really badly with two big injuries. I came back in the right way but obviously my body couldn’t cope with all the games. If you play once a week, you will be fine but I played five or six games in two and a half weeks and my body just said: ‘No, it’s not possible.’”
Some footballers consult psychologists when injury plagues them. “No, no,” he says. “The first two were accidents. It doesn’t matter about a physio or whatever; they just happened. The first I twisted my ankle and it just went. The second the guy [Timothy Fosu-Mensah] just fell on my knee. If he falls 10cm next to me then nothing happens.
“I knew my body was not ready to cope with the physicality of all those games in a row. I’ve no doubt in my mind that after a good summer break and preparation everything will be fine. I’m fine. For me this season, mentally, has been over since the Tottenham game. It’s good to be back with the team for the prizes, the Brighton game and now the final.”
The FA Cup is the one domestic honour De Bruyne has never claimed so that achievement would offer some succour. “It would make up for it in a way,” he says. “But obviously it’s not been the most fun season. In another way I can’t complain because I’ve been playing football for 10 or 11 years and not had many injuries in that regard. I’ve played almost 500 games in my career, so it’s a lot.”
De Bruyne, whose second son was born while he was out with injury, has said he could lose his temper when much younger. Yet despite being calmer now he believes passion on the field is a release from the modern-day need to be robotic in public life.
“For me football is still a game of emotions,” he says. “I don’t like how people try to get emotions out of the game, because what it’s about is having fun, enjoying. If you win you’re happy, if you lose you are sad. And that’s what it’s all about.
“That’s why I also don’t like the new things like VAR because it takes, for me, all the passion out and it becomes more – you need be more like a robot these days. And, how you act as an athlete in public – and just in general – you can’t let your emotions out because every emotion that comes out is going to be published or on social media in a bad way. So you have to try and control yourself.
“When it happens on the field you don’t care what people are going to say. If it comes out it comes out, you’re so focused on what you’re going to do – if you’re angry you’re angry and, if it comes out, that’s it.”
Yet when asked whether he dreams of scoring the Cup final’s winning goal against Watford, De Bruyne’s initial response is the classic footballer’s straight bat about the team being victorious.
Pushed, though, as to whether he would be as cool if, say, he were to score 10 goals in the Wembley showpiece a smile appears. “Well, no, you’d feel very happy,” he says. “It’s a proud moment. In the end you always want to do well for yourself but you can only do it if you win.”