De Bruyne fuels hopes for buoyant Belgium

Paris (AFP) – Kevin De Bruyne’s rise to become one of the world’s best attacking midfielders mirrors that of a Belgium team which surged to the top of the global rankings in 2015.

De Bruyne struck a team-leading five goals -– along with Eden Hazard -– to fire Belgium to the country’s first European Championship finals since co-hosting the 2000 tournament.

He offered glimpses of his potential as the Red Devils reached the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup. But the ginger-haired midfielder’s progression in the two years since has elevated him into an elite talent that persuaded Manchester City to shell out a club-record £54 million ($76 million/67 million euros) to sign him from Wolfsburg.

“It takes a special footballer to improve our squad and I have no doubt that Kevin is certainly one of those – he has all of the mental, physical, tactical and technical attributes required to fit straight in,” said former City boss Manuel Pellegrini following De Bruyne’s move in August last year.

However, De Bruyne’s road to stardom has not come without the odd bump in the road since he broke into the professional ranks with Genk as a 17-year-old.

His performances in the club’s 2010-11 Belgian title-winning season caught the eye of Chelsea who paid £6.7 million to bring De Bruyne to London, treading a similar path to international team-mates Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois.

He spent a prosperous 2012-13 season on loan with Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga, but his joy was cut short after a miserable six months back at Stamford Bridge making just nine appearances under Jose Mourinho.

– Chelsea misery –

Unhappy with a lack of playing time, De Bruyne made clear his desire to leave and was sold, against Chelsea’s wishes, to Wolfsburg in January 2014 for £18 million.

“I just like to play football. Put me on a bench and I will feel bad,” recounted De Bruyne of his unsuccessful spell at Stamford Bridge to British daily The Telegraph.

“There was talk that I didn’t train too much, stories I couldn’t defend myself against as the sessions were always behind closed doors.

“People who know me, know it’s not the truth. A few months later, I was a key player at Wolfsburg and I played a good World Cup.”

De Bruyne shot to prominence in 2014-15, providing a Bundesliga record 21 assists and scoring 10 goals to lead Wolfsburg to a second-place finish behind Bayern Munich. He was also on target in Wolfsburg’s 3-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup final.

“He is a perfect player when you look at transitions from defence to offence,” said Dieter Hecking, his coach at Wolfsburg.

“He has a fantastic anticipation level for empty space and opponents find it incredibly difficult to defend against him. 

“He is a phenomenon: you can find him everywhere on the pitch, but then he also manages to disappear and emerge at the right time.”

What was Chelsea’s loss became Manchester City’s gain, albeit at an exorbitant cost. But De Bruyne has taken great strides to repay the investment. He scored in both legs of the Champions League quarter-finals against Paris Saint-Germain as City reached the last four of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time.

While Hazard toiled at Chelsea, De Bruyne emerged from his international team-mate’s shadow and his absence was keenly felt as City’s Premier League title challenge fell apart while he was sidelined by injury for two months.

But that break could prove a blessing in disguise and Belgium will hope a refreshed De Bruyne can fire them to new heights at Euro 2016 and back up the country’s billing as one of the world’s top sides.

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