NEWCASTLE, England — There are few players in the world who can make a stadium as electric as St James’ Park hold its breath and fewer still who can back it up with a performance worthy of the reaction. Kevin De Bruyne, though, is one of them, and a game Newcastle United were on course to win ended in dramatic defeat to Manchester City thanks to 20 magical minutes from the brilliant Belgian.
De Bruyne, making his first Premier League appearance since August, strode onto the pitch in the 69th minute with City 2-1 down and running out of ideas. By the final whistle, he had a goal and an assist and the visiting fans tucked away high above the goal were celebrating a famous 3-2 win and singing “that’s why we’re champions.”
His finish to caress the ball into the corner from outside the penalty area making it 2-2 was good, but his pass to pick out Oscar Bobb for a stoppage time winner was even better. As De Bruyne stood on the touchline waiting to come on, the energy inside the stadium began to drift away as if the Newcastle fans who had roared their team on for the best part of 70 minutes knew what was about to happen.
Oh, I’ve missed this! What a team! 💙 pic.twitter.com/2ah1r3LZtQ
— Kevin De Bruyne (@KevinDeBruyne) January 13, 2024
For the first time during a chaotic evening, City had momentum in the game and perhaps now, with De Bruyne fit and firing, they have momentum in the title race.
“He is a legend,” said Man City manager Pep Guardiola afterwards. “I had the feeling he is not ready for 90 minutes after five months so we have that situation, impact in the last minutes. The goal and the assist, he is loved by our people and hopefully in the last months he can help us be there to the end.”
If City go on to win a fourth title in a row, they may look back on their win at Newcastle in mid-January as a big one. At a venue where Arsenal, Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain have all been beaten this season, City lost goalkeeper Ederson to injury inside the first five minutes, conceded twice in two frantic first-half minutes and still found a way to win.
It might have been different had Alexander Isak — who scored a sublime first goal for Newcastle — taken one of two chances to make it 3-1, but Ederson’s replacement, Stefan Ortega, made two good saves. It meant that when Newcastle began to run out of steam after an hour, De Bruyne was able to take advantage with a world-class ability to find spaces and then make the most of them.
“He has more space or freedom to move where his nose or guts feel,” said Guardiola. “When Kevin has the ball we need runners and Oscar did it well.”
In normal circumstances, Bobb’s first Premier League goal — skilfully rounding Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka with a rapid shift of the ball in the 91st minute — would have been the headline, but De Bruyne’s cameo was so special, it was hard to focus on anything else, even for Newcastle manager Eddie Howe.
“We want him to be rusty and he wasn’t,” Howe said bluntly. “We wanted to minimise the space for him and for the majority of the time he was on we dealt with it really well. With three minutes to see out we thought we were almost there.
“We have so much promise, there was so much good, but we’re sitting here with nothing and that is very painful for the players. First half was everything we want to be. We want to be on the front foot but in the second half we couldn’t manage that,” added Howe.
It wasn’t lost on the Newcastle boss that when Guardiola was able to turn to De Bruyne to win him the game, he was only comfortable enough to bring on 19-year-old Lewis Hall with four minutes to go. Injuries are wreaking havoc on Newcastle’s season and they’ve now lost six of their last seven league games.
“We love the players we have but all our attacking players aren’t available,” said Howe. “If the injuries were spread out it wouldn’t be so defining for us. When we are at full strength, we are incredibly talented. I don’t think it would have been unjust if we had drawn that game.”
That Newcastle didn’t get a point owed so much to De Bruyne’s intervention at a crucial point in the game as he makes his comeback from injury at a crucial point in the season. There have been moments during the campaign when Guardiola has spoken damningly about City’s chances of winning a record fourth title in a row, but that seems a long time ago now.
“My team is alive,” he said, in an ominous warning to the rest of the Premier League. “We won three times in a row, five in the last six, so why not?”
De Bruyne is back and so is the belief.