By Ben Morse, Darren Lewis and Zayn Nabbi, CNN
Manchester (CNN) — Kevin De Bruyne has lived a charmed life. From Sergio Agüero and Romelu Lukaku to Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres, the midfielder has had his share of lethal strikers to finish the chances he’s created.
But even with those bounty of riches, none quite compare to Erling Haaland.
The Norwegian has scored a remarkable 52 goals so far in all competitions in his debut season in England, with De Bruyne providing assists for 13 of those. Together, the pair have combined brilliantly to take Man City to the brink of history.
City has won the Premier League and the FA Cup this season and faces Inter Milan in the Champions League final in Istanbul on Saturday hoping to become only the second English side to win ‘the treble’ – all three major trophies in a single season.
During his glittering career, De Bruyne has learned about the connection between midfielder and attacker, something Haaland has capitalized on.
“I’ve played with some very good strikers in my life,” De Bruyne told CNN’s Senior Sports Analyst Darren Lewis, adding that Haaland “plays differently” to others he’s played with.
“I tried to understand what they are good at and if I can get them in the right positions and do what they are really strong at, I feel like I’ve tried to be able to do everything in my power to help my team win … I also feel like whenever I’m on the ball, people will give me options, people have the trust in me that I’m able to give them opportunities.”
But even despite the ridiculous impact Haaland has made in his first season for City, De Bruyne – and Haaland himself – have higher expectations.
“If I look at all the chances that he had and all the opportunities he had to score, I expect him also to score goals,” De Bruyne said. “And it’s stupid to say when you think about somebody scoring 50 goals. But there’s been games also where I’ve told him: ‘You could have scored three and you scored one.’ But that’s a good thing.
“Sometimes he would say it himself. But I think every player on this level is a little bit like this. And I would say the same. Like: ‘I should pass the ball that way’ or ‘I should create more.’ And it’s never with a bad intention. But I think even he feels sometimes that he could be better but at 22 years old, it’s a little bit crazy to say.”
De Bruyne and his City team are on the brink of history.
The only other team to achieve the treble is City’s arch-rival, Manchester United, which won the treble in the most dramatic fashion, scoring two late goals against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in 1999.
That team was full of famous figures. Alex Ferguson as manager and legendary players Peter Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Jaap Stam, and Denis Irwin. Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole all started against Bayern, while Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær played key parts off the bench.
And this City team has the potential to be no different. With Pep Guardiola at the helm, the team is made up of already renowned figures. Alongside De Bruyne are the established Kyle Walker, John Stones, İlkay Gündoğan, Rodri, Bernado Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Ederson. Meanwhile, Haaland, Rúben Dias, Jack Grealish, Julián Álvarez and Phil Foden are on their way to cementing their legacies.
Many have made comparisons between the two teams given their similarities – both geographically and in terms of their achievements. Former United striker Cole, who scored 121 goals in 275 games for the Red Devils, told CNN that he “genuinely believed that 1999 team would be more than good enough to compete against this Man City team.”
But De Bruyne was not a fan of making what he calls “unnecessary” comparisons.
“It’s a massive achievement and if we would be able to do that on Saturday, it’s also a massive achievement,” he explained.
“But how can you compare different eras, I would say, different players, different teams you play?
“I don’t know how you compare the teams that they played against our teams. They should be proud of what they did, and if we do it, we should do the same. But it feels like a bit of unnecessary drama.
“I also understand people talk about it and it’s interesting, but I’m very happy that as a player, I don’t feel the necessity to talk about these things because I’m not that kind of guy.”
Eight years later
A lot has changed since De Bruyne signed for City.
His arrival in 2015 came with a hefty transfer fee and, with it, expectation.
With a reported $68.7 million (£54.5m) price tag attached to his name, De Bruyne faced doubt from certain areas of the media and Man City’s fanbase, questioning whether he was worth the amount of money he was acquired for. The previous season, De Bruyne had scored 16 goals and provided 28 assists to help Wolfsburg to a second-placed finish in the Bundesliga and a victory in the German Cup.
“Obviously, I think a lot was said when I when I signed for City and the amount of money,” he said. “And I thought at that moment in time when a lot of articles or people would say something, I had the feeling: ‘People don’t watch other leagues.’
“In England, the Premier League is the Premier League and they will see snippets in Europe. But I don’t feel like anybody saw what I’ve done in Germany at the time with Wolfsburg and the Europa League and winning the cup.
“We had an amazing season and I felt that nobody saw the progression that I made. And the amount of money, I couldn’t do anything about it. These are the clubs negotiating and that happens. Maybe I have a little chip on my back to say like: ‘When I come to City, I will perform.’”
Eight years later and now 31 years old, De Bruyne has achieved almost everything at Man City, becoming one of the world’s best attacking players.
His full potential unlocked under the genius of Guardiola, De Bruyne is known for his driving runs, pinpoint passes and thunderbolt strikes.
The one thing that has eluded him and City is the Champions League trophy. Man City did reach the final of the competition two years ago but lost 1-0 to Chelsea in Porto.
De Bruyne says he doesn’t harbor any “bad feelings or emotions” towards the disappointing end to the campaign. He puts the team’s stunning form this season down to the chemistry amongst the squad.
“The bond is so good, so nice. Sometimes every team has a bust up in training or whatever but I feel that’s also necessary to build a good group,” De Bruyne says.
“But like I said, I feel like the group has always been really good together, no matter what moment it happened or what happened, good or bad, it’s always been pretty good together.
“I never feel like there are many egos or people distancing themselves one way or another … I’ve been here eight years and it’s been pretty incredible to me.”
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