Kevin de Bruyne has helped Manchester City win plenty of games before, but did the goal and assist he delivered to sink Newcastle on Sunday mean more than just another three points?
The Belgian marked his return to Premier League action after five months out in trademark style, with a brilliant cameo off the bench to inspire City’s thrilling late fightback at St James’ Park.
His equaliser was followed by a sublime pass to set up Oscar Bobb’s stoppage-time winner which moved the defending champions up to second place, two points behind leaders Liverpool, and sent an ominous message to all of their title rivals.
“It’s not just about this result, it’s the impact it could have for the rest of City’s season,” said former defender Micah Richards, who watched their win at St James’ Park for Match of the Day.
“You could see what it meant to Pep Guardiola and his players from the way they celebrated at the end of the game.
“All season they have had people questioning their mentality, asking if they are still the same side that won the Treble last season and talking about if they can win the title four times in a row, because it’s never been done before.
“There have been times when they have not been at the level we all expect but this game was like them saying to everyone else ‘we are here, and we are fighting all the way to the end’.
“When you get someone of the quality of De Bruyne coming back from injury, it is not just the case of him being a genius, it is what he does for the rest of the squad too.
“He gives everyone else a lift, and I just think City will feel unstoppable now. They always feel like they can beat anyone anyway, but having a player like De Bruyne gives them even more confidence.”
De Bruyne only played the first 23 minutes of City’s season before limping off with a hamstring injury during their opening-day win over Burnley on 11 August.
That was the last City fans saw of him in a sky-blue shirt until last week’s FA Cup win over Huddersfield, when he was given a hero’s welcome at Etihad Stadium after emerging with half an hour to go.
If that was a stroll, with City already 2-0 up and coasting into round four, then this cameo was more of an urgent rescue mission.
City were dominating possession at St James’ Park until De Bruyne replaced Bernardo Silva with 21 minutes remaining, but were trailing 2-1 and lacking an attacking spark to break down the hosts’ packed defence – which De Bruyne duly delivered.
He levelled five minutes later with a precise shot from the edge of the box and then had the final word in stoppage time when he found Bobb for the winner with a glorious lofted pass into the area.
“It was just ridiculously good,” was Richards’ verdict. “De Bruyne’s not just back, he’s back with a bang!
“Before Sunday, Newcastle had the best home defensive record in the Premier League, with only seven goals conceded in 10 games. So to unlock that, in the way he did it, was just amazing.
“We talk about lots of players being world-class but Kevin is different. It’s the way he reads games, and reads situations. He always seems to gauge exactly what the game needs – and he delivers, all the time.
“There are lots of very talented players in the Premier League, but there are only a select few who can have that kind of impact on a game like he did here.
“It felt like when he was on the bench, he was scanning to see which areas of the game he could make a difference in when he came on.
“We know he has the quality, but he also had the will to get it done, which he spoke about in his post-match interview. He knew the game needed something to change, because Newcastle were defending quite well at the time.
“It basically needed a couple of moments of genius by him to turn it around, but I am buzzing for Oscar Bobb too, to score his first Premier League goal in a moment like that.
“It hurts to lose someone like Cole Palmer, who had come through the youth system, but the best decision for him was to go and play. That’s why he went to Chelsea, and City got good money for him.
“But I’ve been impressed by Bobb for a while now, and it is great to see another young player coming in to make a difference in a big game like this one.”
City have 13 days rest before their next game, against Tottenham in the FA Cup on Friday 26 January, and they don’t play again in the Premier League until they host Burnley five days later.
Richards felt beating Newcastle was the perfect way for City to sign off for their short winter break, but is not expecting them to lose any momentum when they return.
“If the Newcastle game had finished 2-2, it would have felt like points dropped,” he explained. “In your head you are thinking you need another game soon to put that right.
“But because of the winter break, City don’t have that. That’s another reason why it meant so much – the players are thinking ‘we finished on a high, and we can have a bit of a rest now’.
“They already have key players like Jeremy Doku and De Bruyne back from injury and hopefully Erling Haaland will be back soon too.
“It is almost like they can have a breather, thinking ‘we are there’, two points behind Liverpool, knowing it will be time to kick on again when they come back.”