When Pep Guardiola was asked whether or not Kevin De Bruyne had a chance of winning the Ballon d‘Or this season, he was adamant in his reply.
“No doubt. It’s not one game, it’s a season every three days, every three games playing that way.
“He knows and everybody knows that to be there you have to win titles, and titles and titles.
“The way he played, is difficult to find one in Europe.”
The Belgian midfielder put in a sublime display against Leicester at the weekend, notching a hat-trick of assists during their 5-1 demolition of the Midlands club.
What’s so powerful about watching the 26-year-old play is the seemingly simplistic way he controls games in the middle and final thirds.
While City flow all around him – Fernandinho hustling the space behind, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling exploding into the box, David Silva endlessly searching for space, Sergio Aguero biting the heels off defenders – De Bruyne seems to amble in comparison.
But he is always watching, always waiting for the break and when the ball arrives at his feet, it’s always in a dangerous position.
He is always unmarked, always ready to deliver the final, killer blow, with such precision of placement and power it could have been pulled from a video game simulation.
His vision and passing range is unbeaten in the Premier League, and maybe in the world, at the moment, his dribbling into danger and finishing are terrifically underrated.
This is exemplified by his smashing solo effort against Tottenham. De Bruyne is one of the most intelligent footballers in the game, playing at the highest level in a team that will break all kinds of records this season.
A fairly convincing case – which gets even more convincing when looking at the history of the Ballon d’Or award, and what City can achieve.
Cataclysmic footballing events have often decided the destiny of world football’s most prestigious award.
Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo in 1998 and 2002 respectively, rewarded after exemplary World Cups in which their team won, albeit in vastly differing circumstances (Zidane delivering under home pressures, Ronaldo retuning from a lengthy injury layoff to dominate the goalscoring charts at the heart of the last great Brazil team).
Fabio Cannavaro lifted the Golden Ball after being the beating heart of Italy’s defence in 2006, Hristo Stoichkov after Bulgaria’s exploits in ’94.
But what defines these events is different now in the Ronaldo/Messi era.
There is a new bar, and a good World Cup may not be enough for De Bruyne after a great season for City – but winning the Quadruple, then a standout World Cup, may well be the clincher.
After all, the foremost coach of our era cannot be wrong in saying De Bruyne has a chance, and it is within the context of his own team’s achievements that the former Wolfsburg man can succeed.
With De Bruyne the beating heart of this vast City organism, driving them to four trophies in three months can qualify as such an event – Messi and Ronaldo have had more trophy-laden seasons and calendar years, but all that in such a short space of time? Unheard of.
But a word of warning to his supporters – sometimes, all of this isn’t even enough to dislodge the top two. Case in point – Wesley Sneijder, 2010.
The Dutch number 10 was pivotal to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan treble-winners.
The fulcrum about which the side’s attacking play operated, Sneijder was the unstoppable force in their side, nicknamed “The Sniper” for his sharp shooting from distance, bullet free-kicks, and fantastic vision and through ball execution.
He dragged Inter to key wins against Dynamo Kiev and Siena, notched the equaliser against Barcelona, and assisted Diego Milito in opening the scoring against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
He was the star of Mourinho’s finest season, and when he brought Holland to the final of the World Cup – via three man-of-the-match awards and a tournament-best five goals – he was surely a shoo-in in any other era for the award.
Instead, the award went to Lionel Messi, heading up a Barcelona one-two-three, with Sneijder fourth.
While Messi’s contributions that season, scoring 47 goals and bringing the false nine role back to public consciousness under Guardiola, are nothing to be sniffed at, Sneijder and Inter’s seasons would have been enough to triumph under normal circumstances.
But with Ronaldo and Messi dominating the scene, these are not normal circumstances.
Franck Ribery in 2013 and Neymar in 2014 and 2015 could also qualify as seasons that could win in any other era, but it’s a different playing field now with Ronaldo and Messi at the top.
Manchester City, mind, know a little something about reinventing standards. They’ve been doing it week in, week out this season, and Kevin De Bruyne is their best player.
With Ronaldo’s powers waning, and Belgium better placed on paper than Argentina to win the World Cup, this season could provide the cataclysmic footballing event that will split the duopoly once and for all.
On the other hand, should Argentina be lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy come July, we could have a cataclysmic event that further cements Lionel Messi as the greatest football of our generation – perhaps, ever – and buries De Bruyne’s accomplishment, at least on the world stage.
Whatever happens, should Manchester City win the quadruple, there is no one better placed than Kevin De Bruyne to break through the Ballon d’Or glass ceiling.
Alex Dunne, Pundit Arena