Real Madrid star Ronaldo won the prestigious world player of the year award for a record-equalling fifth time in December, meaning either he or Barcelona playmaker Messi have claimed the prize every year since 2008.
But the form of De Bruyne in Manchester City‘s outstanding season has elevated the Belgium midfielder to the elite level in the eyes of his manager, and Guardiola believes is a potential winner.
“No doubt,” said Guardiola after watching De Bruyne lay on three more assists in Saturday’s 5-1 thrashing of Leicester. “He is not (just doing it in) one game. It’s the whole season, every three days playing that way. Every three days.
“But he knows and everyone knows, to be there you have to win titles – and titles and titles, especially one. But the way he’s played it’s difficult to find one (better) in Europe.”
When asked if the ‘one’ title he was referring to was the Champions League, Guardiola said: “Of course. You have to be there in the latter stages. Without the latter stages you will not be nominated.”
Guardiola, however, is not looking too far ahead just yet. The quadruple-chasing Premier League leaders resume their Champions League campaign at the last-16 stage in Basel on Tuesday and Guardiola is well aware City exited at this point last season. His immediate aim is negotiating a path into the next round.
He said: “The next step forward from last season is to achieve the quarter-finals. That is our only concern. Against Basel we try to make two good games and do it better than last season.
“We arrive good but we have to know the Champions League is another competition, completely different.
“The Champions League is (about) how you control the bad moments and the emotions. That is the Champions League. We scored six goals last season in the last 16 and were out.”
De Bruyne, who has now provided 18 assists for team-mates in all competitions this season, insists he is not interested in individual praise or talk of the Ballon d’Or.
The influential midfielder said: “To be fair, when I am busy playing football I don’t care (about that).
“I am doing what I have to do. It is something you reflect on after you get something like that. I am not busy with that before.
“I do everything to win titles with the team. What happens after is an extra.
“I am very pleased with the way everything is going for me. I am playing this way because the team is playing this way. It makes it easier for me, it makes it easier for them.
“At the end, if you get an individual honour, it is beautiful.”
Arsene Wenger admitted his side could not afford to lose the north London derby after Harry Kane’s winner for Tottenham on Saturday left Arsenal clinging onto their top-four ambitions.
The Gunners are now six points off the top four – and a return to the Champions League looks to be slipping away.
With the spotlight firmly on Wenger’s side, the question in our Monday debate is: Will Arsenal be able to secure a place in the Premier League’s top four?
Let us know your thoughts as our two writers discuss the topic.
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NIALL MCCAGUE, SAYS YES
Arsenal’s hopes of securing Champions League football were dealt a significant blow after a 1-0 defeat to Tottenham on Saturday.
But, although a sceptic would suggest their form and style of play is diminishing, the Gunners should seal a top four spot with 11 matches remaining. All but two of those games – against Manchester City (home) and Manchester United (away) – are winnable games and history shows they are strong finishers to the season.
In the last four campaigns, Arsenal have won or drawn an average of 75% of their last 10 remaining games and although they were shaded for fourth place by Liverpool last term Arsene Wenger’s side look a more organised outfit this time around.
January signings will certainly add confidence and boost aspirations between now and the end of the current campaign.
In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Gunners boast two ace attackers who are capable of scoring 15 goals between them before the middle of May. All it takes is two or three wins to gather some momentum and to allow the new players sufficient time to click – and this will kick-start more positive results and increase morale in North London.
Having no FA Cup and Champions League will keep the players fresher than their rivals, and fewer games lower the risk of injuries to marquee names in the squad. Bar Santi Cazorla, they don’t have any big injuries which is rare for Arsenal.
As it stands, Chelsea and Liverpool are vying for that fourth spot – both of whom are playing in the last-16 of the Champions League this week and have a similar run-in to the end of the season. The Gunners do have the Carabao Cup final against City later this month and Europa League action, but Wenger will not be bothered by how his team fares in that competition as he puts his full attention on the league.
The Frenchman will surely have a point to prove – and with 18 months left on his current contract, he will want to do everything he can to be playing Champions League football in his final year at the Emirates.
STUART APPLEBY, SAYS NO
“We have to continue to fight.” The words of Arsene Wenger following Saturday’s limp display, a performance Arsenal fans have become used to for many years whilst the rest of the footballing world takes a comfy watching brief, laughing at their expense and refreshing the post-match uploads page on Arsenal Fan TV in great expectation.
It’s part of the Frenchman’s job to try and move things on and seek a positive from a defeat, but in truth, the Gunners haven’t shown much or any bottle for a long time now. Not the kind, anyway, to go with such a rallying cry.
It can, of course, be all too easy to blame the manager for everything that is going wrong but Wenger, it’s sad to say after all his former glories, is at the heart of all the problems.
The failure to strengthen a leaking defence, tactical naivety (for example, remember how open they were against Liverpool earlier on this season), letting soon-to-be out of contract stars rule the roost, big game wobbles, outmuscled against the lesser sides, mystery over Wenger’s safe position in the board, fan arrest, player loyalty… the list just goes on and on.
Ultimately, nothing’s changed and change is what the Arsenal board is scared of, with the thought of sacking Wenger being central to that. What signs have we seen from the manager that he can correct his mistakes and turn it around? Very few. The reality is Arsenal won’t be able to progress until he’s gone.
It is those same issues that’ll see Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League for the second successive season with most fans and followers, although divided in some quarters, counting down the minutes until Wenger’s final year of his contract is up. If it wasn’t for Chelsea’s struggles, the north Londoners wouldn’t even be in the top four debate.
The caveat of recent domestic cup triumphs means the Emirates trophy room will regularly need a spring clean but Arsenal’s dining spot at Europe’s top table will be gathering plenty of dust for at least a few more years.
The Reds breezed to a comfortable 2-0 win at Southampton with no less than five ex-Saints taking the pitch in Liverpool colours.
Mohamed Salah and Robert Firmino contributed some moments of class upfront while Virgil van Dijk was dominant at the back.
Here are our ratings:
Lorus Karius – Good quick distribution led to the first goal, poor punch in first half but made up for it soon after with strong save from Hojbjerg, held Carrillo’s header well, and tipped a header over from Ward-Prowse. A bad throw on 37 minutes but overall a better performance – 7
Andrew Robertson – Outfoxed for an early corner that luckily did not lead to anything; got forward regularly, and whipped a couple of good crosses in the first half, superb play early in second half to set up a good chance for Salah, still pressing up to the 94th minute – 8
Joel Matip – Good shepherding in first half to win a throw, looked comfortable alongside Van Dijk – their partnership is growing. Mishit a back pass from Alexander-Arnold gave Southampton good field position, clumsy tackle on Tadic in first half saw him booked, got stronger as game went on – 7
Virgil van Dijk – Imperious display at the back, the type Liverpool paid 75 million pounds for. Copped plenty of abuse from the home fans but it didn’t seem to rattle him, strong in the air, sat back a little deeper than Liverpool’s central defenders usually do which give him extra time on the ball. Showed composure and a nice floated ball to pick out Robertson in first half. Worked offside trap well, a great cut-out in particular of a Ward-Prowse ball on 64 minutes and dominated right to the final whistle – 9
Trent Alexander-Arnold – Relieved to see the offside flag go up against Tadic on 15 minutes, got forward when the chance presented. Gave corner up to Tadic in first half but did well to win one from him in second half, though committed a silly foul on Tadic to give Southampton chance on 58 mins – 6
Georginio Wijnaldum – Busy game in attack as usual, made some good challenges in the centre of the park. Put Mane in for a good chance on 32 minutes, a wild shot from outside the box went way over. Kept working to the end – 6
🎶 MO SALAH, MO SALAH, MO SALAH... 🎶— Liverpool FC (@LFC) February 11, 2018
Another goal to add to the tally. 💥 pic.twitter.com/1tEdNhdt93
Emre Can – Sat back a little allowing Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wijnaldum to push up. Some good covering at the back, gave up ball to Romeu early in second half but continued to work hard, tracked back well, good strong challenge on Carrillo on 83 minutes – 7
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – Back at St Mary’s and seemed eager to perform well. One early shot on target, worked hard in midfield, one wayward cross early in second half and would have liked to be more involved in an attacking sense – 5
Sadio Mane – Struggled to get involved, one long-range shot on 25 minutes that was well wide to the right, mishit clearance soon after almost led to catastrophe. Tracked back well and had a good chance on 32 minutes but failed to capitalise. Made a good chance for Firmino on 70 minutes, shot blocked on 73 minutes, missed with a wild left footer on 75 minutes – 7
Roberto Firmino – Took his goal well, finishing clinically from Salah’s pass; worked hard covering back, beaten by Lemina several times in the first half in 50-50 challenges but struck back with magnificent back heel setting up Salah’s goal, and had one shot on target saved in second half – 8
Mohamed Salah – Set up the first goal with a trademark fast break and neat inside poke to Firmino, kept fairly quiet in first half until a delightful back-heel from Firmino set up his goal. Made a dangerous dribble on the hour mark but lost the ball in penalty area – 8
James Milner (on after 59 minutes for Oxlade-Chamberlain) – Strong challenge on Tadic to enter game, busy presence in midfield taking workload off Can – 5
Adam Lallana – (on after 80 minutes for Firmino) – Cleaned up Karius’ punch on 82 minutse when Southampton threatened, ran around and got involved as Klopp would have wanted, set up for a super chance with a one-two by Salah but pushed his left-footed shot wide – 6
Dejan Lovren (on after 88 minutes for Salah) – Brought the ex-Southampton players involved for Liverpool to five, managed not to concede a goal while he was on the fieldl, quite an achievement for Lovren – N/A