2:59 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester City’s win against Liverpool
Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden – the sorcerer and his apprentice – offer both optimism for the present and hope for the future. With a goal and an assist each, they were the star players on a pitch that they had welcomed their opponents onto with a guard of honour.
De Bruyne, in particular, was in imperious form. So good that one was left wondering how on earth he has failed to bend this entire Premier League season to his will.
Certainly, it appears incongruous that Manchester City could retain their title last season – one in which he started only 11 games – and yet fail so emphatically to defend that crown during a campaign in which he has been almost ever-present under Guardiola.
He remains the competition’s most complete footballer.
“The stand-out player,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports when predictably naming him as the man of the match. “He makes it look so simple. It is effortless for him. He does not project himself like a brand so he maybe does not get the attention that others get.”
Both Neville and Jamie Carragher agreed that, for all Liverpool’s qualities, De Bruyne is the best player in the Premier League, the best passer that the competition has ever seen.
City’s greatest? Many say that is David Silva. For now. “When Kevin De Bruyne leaves the club he could eclipse him and that is the highest praise I could give him,” added Carragher.
Former Manchester City defender Micah Richards was similarly effusive in his praise.
“I am running out of superlatives to talk about him,” Richards told Sky Sports. “He just affects every game that he plays. He was the best player on the pitch again.”
There were so many little moments of magic. The change of direction that gave him the space to play in Jesus with a perfectly executed pass while the game was still goalless. The even trickier pass that he managed to thread in behind just before the half-hour mark.
“You think he can’t squeeze it through,” said Neville. “It is so good watching him play.”
In between, he converted the penalty that set City on their way. A reluctant taker, he has solved that problem too – scoring four out of four since assuming the responsibility.
City’s second goal? He applied neither the finishing touch nor provided the pass, but he was still involved without even touching the ball. It was his overlapping run from inside to out, ignored by Foden, that created the space for his team-mate to find Raheem Sterling.
De Bruyne did provide the pass for the third, his one-touch lay-off bringing up assist number 17 for the Premier League season. He looked to have another in the second half only for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to divert Sterling’s effort into his own net to complete the scoring.
Thierry Henry’s record of 20 is still in his sights.
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That is one thing still left to play for this season at least but De Bruyne and Manchester City have bigger priorities. There is the FA Cup to retain and the small matter of the second leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie against Real Madrid next month.
The thought occurs that if City can do this to Liverpool – albeit a Liverpool side lacking their competitive edge having already won the title – then what might they be able to do to those opponents who still stand in the way of that first Champions League triumph?
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Speaking to Guardiola earlier this week, his eyes are firmly fixed on more silverware this season. “I am not thinking about winning the next Premier League,” he told Sky Sports. “We have won two trophies this season and we have two more ahead of us.”
Liverpool, of course, can do nothing now to deny them in either of those competitions. But perhaps Guardiola will take encouragement too from the fact that his players have illustrated that the gulf between his side and the one still 20 points ahead of them in the Premier League table is not so great.
It will require far greater consistency from City than they have been able to muster this time around, but it will not require a leap in quality, only the ability to sustain it for longer.
De Bruyne must do so without his old playmate Silva.
But he has found a new one in Foden.
“I never start a season with the dream of winning this title or that one, the only dream is to see the team getting better,” said Guardiola. “This is what we have to do.”
This was a performance to suggest that such improvement might not be too far away.