With Gerard Piqué retiring from football and Sergio Ramos overlooked for the World Cup squad, 2022 has been the end of an era for Spanish centre-backs. Luis Enrique took some criticism for not calling up Ramos – the most capped player in Spain’s history – but the manager stuck to his guns and deserves credit for doing so.
Luis Enrique selected four centre-backs in his squad for Qatar: Aymeric Laporte, Pau Torres and Eric García, who went to the Euros last summer, and the versatile youngster Hugo Guillamón. Yet, despite the availability of these experienced centre-backs, Luis Enrique has used Rodri alongside his Manchester City teammate Laporte at the heart of defence in Spain’s first two games in Qatar.
The dilemma for Spain, as usual, is that they have too many brilliant central midfielders. Gavi and Pedri, despite their youth, are guaranteed starters considering their technical quality, and they benefit from having their experienced Barcelona teammate, Sergio Busquets, alongside them to anchor the midfield.
Busquets, the only World Cup winner in the squad, is now 34 but we all saw how much Spain struggled without him at the Euros last year. He missed Spain’s first two games at the tournament and they laboured to draws with Sweden and Poland. It’s a tricky one for Luis Enrique: he doesn’t want to lose his captain but he knows Busquets no longer has the legs to control the middle of the park. Given the make-up of his squad, Luis Enrique’s decision to pick Busquets at the base of the midfield and use Rodri in the centre of defence could be a masterstroke.
Rodri was used at the heart of defence by Pep Guardiola – obviously – on a handful of occasions in the 2019-20 campaign, but he is inexperienced in the role. Throwing him in at the deep end at a World Cup was a risk, but Rodri has handled it well. At 6ft 2in, he has the physicality to play the role and he is brilliant at dispossessing opponents – only Declan Rice (82) has won possession in the midfield third more times than Rodri (70) in the Premier League this season. Rodri has the tools to excel at centre-back in the modern game, given his tenacity off the ball and impressive distribution when in possession.
In the long term, Rodri will surely take over from Busquets as the anchor of the Spain midfield – the player in the team who dictates the tempo and helps them dominate possession. His performances at the Euros last year suggest he wasn’t quite ready for the role, but he is developing under Guardiola and will no doubt have a future further up the pitch for the national team. For now, though, Busquets brings experience and balance to the side, and picking the Barcelona captain remains Spain’s best option.
Gavi and Pedri have the freedom to push on and make nuisances of themselves in the final third, safe in the knowledge that Busquets is easing the defensive burden behind them. With such a short lead-in to this World Cup, it helps that the three of them have been working together and forging a relationship and understanding at Barcelona.
When Spain have the ball, Rodri steps into midfield to help build up play. He is a natural at keeping the ball – he has made more passes (1,203) than any other player in the Premier League this season – and he gives Spain more control in games. Picking Rodri against Costa Rica made sense. Spain were expected to dominate the ball and obliterate their opponents – which they did in some style, winning 7-0 – so having an extra midfielder at the back to help build up play seemed smart. Using Rodri against the much tougher Germany, though, was a huge show of faith by Luis Enrique.
It may seem harsh on Torres and García, who are fine ball playing centre-backs. García had the best pass success rate (95.5%) in the squad at the Euros last summer, while Torres (93.9%) ranked third. So why has Luis Enrique opted for Rodri? Perhaps because he offers better balance at the back. Torres, Laporte and García all prefer to play on the left side of a centre-back pairing. With Rodri dropping back into the right-sided role, Laporte is able to stay on the left, where he is more comfortable. This results in a more stable defensive unit.
Bar a minor lapse against Germany on Sunday – when he failed to contain Jamal Musiala in the buildup to Niclas Füllkrug’s equaliser – Rodri’s deployment at centre-back has been a success story so far. If Spain go all the way in the tournament, Luis Enrique’s brave, creative decision to partner Laporte with Rodri will be a key reason behind their success.
Confession. I’m a Manchester City fan. Another confession. Kevin De Bruyne is my favourite player. In 30 years of journalism, I’ve never interviewed a City player. Don’t meet your heroes, they say. The whole thing is discombobulating. De Bruyne – one of the world’s great players – has agreed to a rare interview. But there’s a caveat. If you talk to me, he says, you also talk to my wife, my kids, you do it at our home and you get to know us all. Usually, it’s the opposite – you don’t talk to my family, you don’t come to my home, it’s all about the work rather than the private life. Strange.
We meet a few weeks before the start of the World Cup. He’s beginning to think about it. But in typical De Bruyne fashion he dispenses with diplomacy and tells it as it is. No, he’s not happy about it being in Qatar. Yes, it is a distraction from the Premier League. No, he doesn’t think Belgium have much chance of winning.
Now he’s out there hoping to prove himself wrong.
At his best on the pitch, virtually everything is channelled through him. Often he will start a move by winning the ball and running with it in the same movement. Though he plays in the centre, he sets up goals by overlapping on the wing to put in crosses of such pace, swerve and accuracy that they are impossible to defend. And while goal-scoring isn’t his main thing (he prefers to assist), last season, when he scored four goals against Wolves, commentator Alistair Mann quivered: “Kevin, stop it! I’m running out of superlatives for you!”
In 2020, De Bruyne became the first City men’s player to win the prestigious PFA Player of the Year, and won it again the following season. In September, he was named the world’s best passer in the video game Fifa 23. Earlier this month, the game Football Manager 2023 ranked him the greatest player in the world.
De Bruyne doesn’t run with the football pack. We never see him out getting into trouble. In fact, we pretty much never see him. Which makes today even stranger. But it also makes a kind of sense. “Away from football, it’s all about family,” he says. “This is my life.”
Michèle LaCroix, AKA Mrs De Bruyne, greets me at the door. She apologises for still being in her bathrobe, shows me in and makes coffee. The house is everything you’d expect: huge driveway, extension the size of a small hotel, artworks galore, carpets like quicksand. Coco, the white-grey cat, is so perfectly coordinated, you wonder whether she came with the furnishings. Yet it’s also homely. Toys spill out of the playroom and De Bruyne’s office obviously doubled up as the home-schoolroom in the pandemic (one wall is plastered with spelling tests).
De Bruyne is nowhere to be seen, so LaCroix introduces me to Coco, the three children and her mother. We chat and drink, and it’s only after a while that I realise De Bruyne is also now in the kitchen. He is wearing a brown tracksuit, has a wispy gingerish beard and bears more than a passing resemblance to his cartoon compatriot Tintin. He glides through his house like a ghost: if he hadn’t shaken my hand and introduced himself, I probably wouldn’t have registered his presence. He floats off to the fridge, takes out slices of white Hovis, makes himself a mustard sandwich, heats up green soup and starts eating. All without a murmur. De Bruyne is a paradox. He is both famously shy and famously outspoken. A number of stories shape the mythology around him. The first is that at eight he turns to his father and says he wants to leave his club, KVV Drogen, because the training sessions at Ghent, another local club, are better. Second, now playing for Ghent, he gets so enraged when told off for not helping to clear up the pitch that he grabs one of the posts and refuses to let go. Three adults try to pull him away but fail, and his coach, Frank De Leyn, has to stay with him because De Bruyne tells him he is planning to hold on all night.
Fast forward a few years for another classic tale: De Bruyne is on the verge of the first team at rival Belgian club Genk, living there with a foster family during the week, when they decide, two years in, that they don’t want him to live with them any more because he doesn’t fit in; he’s too quiet. Finally, there is the time, aged just 20, when he gives a half-time interview ripping into his Genk teammates for shirking: “I’m ashamed of them. I suggest that those who don’t have a desire to play just leave,” he says at the time.
His management team are also here today and he’s talking to them in a quiet, flat voice. It’s so understated you almost tune out. Then you hear what he’s saying. Asked if Belgium can win the World Cup, he says, “No chance, we’re too old.” It’s only seven months ago that Belgium were ranked No 1 in the world. De Bruyne says that because the tournament is being played in Qatar in mid-season, it doesn’t feel like a real World Cup. One of his reps says it must be a dream playing with Erling Haaland, the extraordinarily prolific striker at City. “Ach, it’s like any forward.” Even he thinks his response is underwhelming. “He is so quick, though,” he adds.
He finishes his soup, cuts up some blackberries and grapes for baby Suri, who is sitting in her highchair having her hair primped for the photoshoot. He says his childhood was so different from that of his children. His father worked in a factory painting trains, his mother was a housewife, and he describes his background as “lower-middle class”. What was he like at school? “I was OK. Smart enough to know how much I needed to do and to finish it. I left at 18 with a diploma.”
I ask why so many European footballers seem better educated than their British counterparts. Perhaps the difference is languages, he says. “There are a lot of people from different countries who speak two or three languages, where English players usually only speak English. I come from a country where by 13 you are studying Dutch, French and English.” With languages, perhaps comes wisdom and humility – an ability to put yourself in the shoes of others, a knowledge that your way is not the only way. He smiles. The Belgian way was never going to be the only way, he says. “Everybody in Belgium always watches English TV anyway!”
I tell him I recently watched footage of him playing as a young boy and his style has hardly changed. Even if you blocked out his face, it could only be De Bruyne. “I know!” He takes out his phone and compares two photographs. “This is from a couple of months ago when I scored against Bournemouth. Look at the way I kick the ball. And this is a picture of me shooting when I was a kid. Identical! Same technique!”
Are Mason, six, and Rome, almost four, promising footballers? “No,” he says. “They don’t play.” Are they not interested? “I don’t know,” he says, as if he’s never considered it. “They like to go to the football. My oldest plays piano a bit and likes to run. He’s a good runner.”
I ask about the famous stories. Did you really cling to the goalpost and refuse to budge? “I think the stories are a bit made up.” So it’s not true? “I don’t remember it. It could be true!” Does it sound like him ? He grins. “I was a little bit stubborn, yeah. I let most things go, but when I do say something I am outspoken. I know now when you speak as a teenager or a kid to an adult with an opinion, people don’t like it … even if it’s true.”
Was that the case when you suggested your Genk teammates were not trying? De Bruyne pinkens. He often flushes like this – when he’s embarrassed, when he’s upset on the pitch and when he’s made one of his superhuman runs. “Yes! The problem is the fans like that and other people like that, but the team doesn’t.”
A hairdresser is here to give everyone a trim before the photoshoot. While it’s De Bruyne’s turn, I chat to LaCroix. She’s a model, a social influencer (with more than 350,000 Instagram followers) and she recently started a Flemish podcast called Secret Society with a few Belgian girlfriends. Her parents are physiotherapists and she wanted to be a doctor when she was at school. “I never thought my life would look like this. Getting a degree was my main goal then.” When she was 17 and De Bruyne was 21, they started dating. Apart from it being her husband’s career, she has no interest in football and certainly had no ambition to be a footballer’s wife. Can she see what makes him a special player? “I don’t know a lot about football, but I think he sees things before the others maybe. He’s always one step ahead?”
She’s encouraging Suri to finish her fruit. “Everyone thinks she’s called Surrey,” she says. “‘Ello, Surrey!’” She does a good impression of a cockney. Rome is building a racetrack on his mini computer. He shows me how to do it, but I can’t keep up. Mason asks for a go of my tape recorder. “I’m going to interview you. What’s it like working for media? What’s your favourite colour?”
De Bruyne emerges from his haircut looking pleased with himself. “I’m like 24 now! I could be a model!” We head back into his office and he and LaCroix sit together on the sofa. I ask her how life has changed since they got together. For starters, she says, they weren’t living anywhere like here. Back then he was just making a name for himself and they could pretty much do what they wanted socially. “Football-wise, it’s got better and better. But then we could do more normal stuff. On a city trip, say, maybe two or three people would come up to us. Now we’re more isolated. So you do more things at home with friends. Kevin has grown more open because we’re in such an intimate circle, always with the same group. He’s more comfortable with who he is.”
“I’m more open-minded to life,” De Bruyne says. “When I was younger, it was just football. Now I have a family, life is different.” In fact, he says, it’s remarkably similar to many other working people – he drops the kids off on his way to work, trains, comes home, family meal with the kids, helps with the homework, watches telly.
He admits there is one way their life is noticeably different from the rest of ours – they spend more money on stuff. This is partly because they can and partly because they pay extra to buy their privacy. “We have to live our life in a more secluded way. Often, if we go on a tour it will be a private tour, and most of the time this stuff is more expensive and more individual.”
LaCroix says this is not a choice. When she and the kids go out without De Bruyne, they can do whatever they want. But with him it’s a different story. “Yesterday we thought we’d try going to the fair and Kevin made at least 100 pictures. Maybe 150. And the kids had to wait all the time, and it wasn’t enjoyable for them. At one point security came up and we thought they’d help, then they said, ‘Can we have a picture?’” She laughs.
She’s not asking for sympathy, she says. In so many ways it’s a wonderful, privileged life. But it isn’t without problems. “When I’ve been driving to the club lately,” De Bruyne says, “there have been people driving next to me and filming. People have followed me.”
After games, LaCroix adds, “People just jump in front of the car so you can’t drive. Then the one next to them goes for a picture so you can’t go anywhere.”
Top footballers get paid ludicrous salaries and are idolised by their supporters. De Bruyne is City’s best-paid player, earning an estimated £385,000 a week – £20m a year. In 2020, he cut ties with his long-term agent, Patrick De Koster, after he was arrested on suspicion of fraud. The investigation was reportedly triggered by complaints from De Bruyne himself. Last year, he negotiated his own contract extension using data analysts to prove his worth to the club.
All the money and worship must change you, I say. “I don’t necessarily think it’s the money, it’s the attention. If you go from no attention to wherever you go people give you attention, then that changes you. You either take everything in or block everything out. Some people like all the attention, but after a while it becomes so much you get eaten up by it. Then if you push it out you seem arrogant. It’s a thin line you have to walk.”
In terms of attention, he says, it’s harder for the top English players: “Because I’m a foreigner living here, I’m still OK. When you’re an English player, the attention flows from everywhere. It would be too much for me.”
Does he think he gets paid too much? “No. I compare it to a singer at a concert and 60,000 people come. I look at it logically. There are millions of people watching the football on TV, there’s 60,000 watching the games, the income of a club is £500-£600m. Yeah, it’s a lot of money, but is it too much? If the club can afford it, it’s not too much. It’s not a popular answer, but that’s how I see it.”
How hard is it for them to relate to people struggling with the cost of living crisis? “We are really close to our family and friends, and most of them have normal jobs, so we know the struggles,” LaCroix says.
She looks at De Bruyne and asks him to translate an expression. “We stay with our feet on the ground,” he says. “It’s easier for us to understand, but it will be harder for the kids because they’re used to a certain lifestyle. They go to a private school and there are people from similar backgrounds. They understand when we go to see our families it’s different types of houses and another lifestyle.” It worries him: “We’ll try, but it cannot be the same as when we grew up. It’s not possible.”
When he was a child, he says, his parents didn’t have much, but it was plenty: “We had what we needed; a nice garden.” Does he have siblings? “One sister. She did trampoline and was pretty good at it. But she didn’t have the character to go on like I did.”
So many promising footballers fall by the wayside. Fewer than 0.5% of the kids in English academies at the age of nine make it as professionals at any level. So what is character? “It’s will. It’s saying no to fun stuff. At 17, 18, a new social life is beginning, people are going out, having fun with friends, and you have to say no.” That must be hard? “It is, and that’s why many people fall down at that stage. You have to become an adult quickly in football. When you start playing with the first team, you’re living with 30-, 35-year-olds; people with kids. It’s not easy and you need to learn that quickly, because if you don’t, you fall out. Elite sport is brutal.”
Did he find it tough as a teen? “Yes. I also missed part of my life because I went away from 14. We’d play on a Saturday, then I would go home to see my parents and on Sunday evening I’d travel back. So I missed the whole social part of my life.” Was he jealous of his friends? “Not at that time. Maybe afterwards. Later, when you experience things, you think perhaps it would have been fun to be doing this when everybody else was.”
It was his decision to leave home at 14: he was desperate to play football, and his parents were supportive.
I ask if the story about being dumped by his foster family is true. “Yes,” he says. “There were three of us and the other two were more sociable. At summer break I said bye to the family and went home. Then my parents told me, you’re not going back, they don’t want you any more.” He says the foster family never said anything directly, but told his parents they didn’t want him because he was too quiet, too difficult, a teenager who didn’t fit in. To add insult to injury, Genk told him he had to go to boarding school instead. In Belgium, boarding schools are more for problematic than privileged students. “I really didn’t want to do it.”
Did that rejection make him question his character? “No. I thought I’m going to push more and show them. I said to my parents, I will do good, you’ll see. I’ll be in the first team quickly, then everything will change.”
There is a YouTube film about De Bruyne that depicts his life as a triumph over tragedy. “Right from the beginning he was abandoned by his foster family,” it says. “And still life didn’t stop hitting him with tragedy after tragedy.” It goes on to document how the 20-year-old signed for Chelsea in a £7m deal and played only three Premier League games before being sold as a flop.
Has he seen the film? “No.” In the film, it mentions a match in which he came on as a half-time substitute and scored five goals. Every goal, it says, was a way of answering the foster family: “One goal, they don’t want you any more. Two goals, too quiet. Three goals, too difficult. Four goals, they don’t want you any more. Five goals, because of who you are.” When I describe this, he turns a pinker shade of pink. “That’s not true. I don’t know who said that, but it’s not true. I find that a little bit embarrassing, to be fair.” Now he’s laughing. “My life wasn’t that bad, to be honest!”
De Bruyne says too much was made of his time at Chelsea when he left, and too much was made when he returned to the Premier League a couple of years later with Manchester City. “When I came here people said, ‘Chelsea reject.’ No, I was just a young boy who didn’t play and was there for six months. I was really young.”
Leaving Chelsea was the making of him. He signed for Bundesliga club Wolfsburg in 2014 for £18m, ended the 2014-15 season with 16 goals and 27 assists in all competitions and was named Germany’s footballer of the year. In August 2015, Manchester City signed him for £55m. Those who remembered his unhappy time at Chelsea couldn’t believe how much City paid for him. Former Liverpool player Phil Thompson said: “The world is going mad. The amount of money they’re paying for this boy is just absolutely bonkers.” But it turned out to be a bargain. In four of his seven seasons, he has been voted player of the season, and City have won the Premier League four of the past five seasons. In 2017-18 they became the first (and still only) club to get 100 points in a season and the following season won an unprecedented clean sweep of domestic trophies.
Eight months after De Bruyne arrived at City, Pep Guardiola became manager. It was the catalyst for the club’s greatest run in its history. For most of my life as a City fan, I was used to nothing but failure; between 1976 and 2011 the club didn’t win a trophy. Thanks to huge investment from its UAE owners, the signing of great players and arguably the best manager in the world, City have dominated the Premier League for the past decade.
As supporters, I say, we love everything our owners have done for the club, but some/many of us do worry about the UAE’s human rights record. Does it bother him? “Honestly, I don’t know too much about that. All I can say is when we speak to people from the Emirates, they’re all really good and polite. I can only speak highly of them, especially Khaldoon [chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak]. You speak to him and he’s a normal person.”
I ask LaCroix if De Bruyne finds it easy to turn off from football. “Yes. He comes home and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I need a break’, so he’ll watch NBA or Formula One. If he’s injured and City plays, me and the kids just leave him alone in front of the television, because when something goes wrong he shouts. I’m like, nothing is going to change, then he shouts at us, and I’m like, OK, let him just watch the game, and after he’s like, sorry!”
De Bruyne has never been sent off for City. But there is a famous clip of him losing it with his teammates at the end of a Champions League match against Napoli in 2017 when he wants to confront the referee. De Bruyne, at his pinkest, shouts “Let me talk” five times. Every time his voice gets louder and morehigh-pitched. In the end, he sees sense and walks away.
I ask LaCroix to do an impression of him getting angry. “One time when he was injured he threw a bottle of water on the floor with full strength. He couldn’t walk but still managed to get up to the television to shout at it.”
“I just want my team to win,” De Bruyne says meekly.
Suddenly the door bursts open and Spider-Man flies into the room. He removes his head gear, and it’s Mason. “Are you going to answer questions?” LaCroix asks. “No,” Mason says. Is it true you’re more interested in playing piano than football, I ask. “Yes,” he says.
Despite City’s domestic success, they have yet to win the Champions League, the most prestigious club tournament in Europe. How important does De Bruyne think it is? “I don’t think it’s that important. It would be nice, but I think it’s more from the outside. It’s a stick people can beat City with. ‘Oh, you’ve done this but you haven’t done this.’ OK, but we’ve still done really good.”
Who are his best friends at City? “I would say probably Kyle Walker and Nathan Aké.” That’s surprising, I say. Walker seems quite different from you. (Walker was splashed across the front pages of the tabloids after hosting a party with sex workers during lockdown.) “Not really,” De Bruyne says. Is that the media? “I don’t know about media. Obviously there have been issues in the past for him. But from day one I have been close to Kyle and he has three kids and they play with my kids.”
I ask about Belgium’s chances in Qatar, wondering if he’ll be more diplomatic this time. But he’s not. “I think our chance was 2018. We have a good team, but it is ageing. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018. I see us more as outsiders.”
De Bruyne, at 31, is at his peak. It’s hard to imagine him playing with such pace for much longer. Does he feel it’s getting tougher?
“I am fully able to do what I need to do, but I feel the difference compared with eight years ago. I need more treatment, more rest.”
“When he was younger, the day after a game he’d be like, ‘We can go and play tennis,’” LaCroix says. “Now the day after he’s like, ‘I need to rest. My body hurts.’”
LaCroix says football has brought her the lifestyle she dreamed of. The only difference is she had always imagined she would make her own money. What’s the worst thing about being a footballer’s wife? Often she feels like a single parent, she says. “For example, Kevin has never been to one school nativity. I’m always the parent on their own. It’s rare he can go to something for them. Two of the kids are at school, so we only have weekends to do things with them, but Kevin is playing then. It makes it harder to do stuff together as a family. Kevin always says now we need to be disciplined for football and later we can enjoy everything together.”
Does she think when he retires that will be her time to pursue her dreams? “That’s what everyone keeps saying. But I don’t think so now. I’m devoted to being with the kids, and I’ve just started the podcast.”
“She’s the glue,” he says out of nowhere. Then he looks embarrassed. “I don’t want to say that because tonight she’ll say, ‘My God, look what you’ve said.’”
LaCroix: “No, I don’t do that. I do not.”
“Yes, you would,” he says. “If I said you were the glue to the family, you’d say, ‘Remember you said that.’”
Do you mean Michèle would use it against you?
De Bruyne: “Of course!”
LaCroix: “He’s making it up!”
They seem to have a lovely relationship.
I ask if he is planning for life after playing? She looks at him, curious to hear the answer: “He gets annoyed when I ask about it. ‘I’m still playing!’”
De Bruyne: “Not really.”
LaCroix: “You do a bit.”
De Bruyne: “Well, I do things to advance the future. I’ve got my Uefa A and B coaching qualification already.”
Does he think he’ll stay in football?
De Bruyne: “Probably, yes.”
LaCroix: “100%. Kevin loves football way too much to not be in it. He should because it’s in his heart as well.”
But he could simply retire, live a life of luxury, make up for lost time on the self-indulgence and dossing front.
“It would never happen,” LaCroix says. “Give him one month, then he would be annoyed. When Covid started he was running around the sofa. I couldn’t cope with him at home.”
They go to have their photos taken. I stay in the office staring at his platoon of man of the match awards. I pop in to see how the shoot is going. De Bruyne is trying to juggle all three children in his arms and I’m worried he may get injured. I’m not sure Pep would be happy.
On the way out, I tell him that at away matches my daughter Maya and I get into the ground early when it’s almost empty and shout for waves from the players when they come out to warm up. Nearly all have given us waves, but never De Bruyne. You’re so intensely focused? “I think so, yes. I’m very different on the pitch to when I’m here. Once I’m playing football it’s a different zone. Then when I’ve finished, the game is done.”
For many years, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the undisputed two best players in the world. But things are changing. In August, De Bruyne was runner-up in the Uefa Men’s Player of the Year award, won by another oldie, Karim Benzema. How important is it to be regarded as one of the best in the world? The quiet, diffident De Bruyne looks at me with magnificent imperiousness. “It’s not important to be regarded as one of the best,” he says. “I want to be the best.”
The next few weeks with Belgium at the World Cup will provide the perfect stage for him prove that he is.
Jack Grealish kept a promise to a young fan with cerebral palsy as he celebrated his first World Cup goal for England against Iran in Qatar. Grealish had met Finlay, a Manchester City supporter, this year after he had written to the City player inspired by Grealish speaking about his younger sister, Hollie, who also has cerebral palsy.
Grealish had promised the 11-year-old that he would do the special celebration dance next time he scored, and kept his word. The midfielder came on as a substitute and scored England’s sixth goal as they swept past Iran 6-2 in their opening fixture on Monday.
Finlay also received a signed City shirt from his hero, who had negotiated about the celebration. The young boy had initially requested Grealish do a hip-hop move called the worm, but the pair settled on a dance with wavy arms that involved a little less physical exertion and risk of injury.
Hollie has featured frequently on Grealish’s Instagram feed, notably in August this year when she celebrated her 19th birthday. “I love her so much,” Grealish had said in a video.
“We are so close. She was born three months premature and they said she would not be able to talk, walk. And here we are today, and she can do everything.”
Finlay wrote to Grealish after hearing the comments to tell him: “It makes me really happy when I see that you, a famous footballer, knows what it’s like to live with people with cerebral palsy,” and asked to meet.
Grealish said the letter had made him smile and told Finlay, who spoke in the letter of his difficulties trying to play football with cerebral palsy: “There is no need to get frustrated as long as you play with a smile on your face. That is all that matters.”
Pep Guardiola was notably accepting of Manchester City’s defeat by Brentford in their last match before the World Cup. “My staff and I will have time to reflect on what we did well and what to do better,” he shrugged. Guardiola and his staff may also have to watch events in Qatar through their hands, clenching as heavy tackles fly in and muscle injuries stack up given City – with 16 players – are the Premier League club sending the most players to the finals.
Even if Erling Haaland will be spending much of the next six weeks on the Etihad Campus, key players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Rodri will return bearing the physical and mental scars of the tournament. And individual success in Qatar may not necessarily be good news for a player’s club. To take the example of England’s Euro 2020 finalists, a number of Gareth Southgate’s players made indifferent starts to their 2021-22 club campaigns.
Such are the intangibles for clubs of this World Cup. Jürgen Klopp is a vocal critic of the tournament being staged in Qatar, particularly in mid‑season, but he will see only seven players jet out to pre-tournament training camps. Like Guardiola, Klopp has a star forward getting a needed rest, in Mohamed Salah, but it is Uruguay rather than Liverpool who will be the immediate beneficiaries of Darwin Núñez’s recent flowering.
Overall the Premier League is providing more World Cup players than any other division, with 134 players at the tournament – 16% – plying their trade in the English top flight. The league leaders, Arsenal, have 10 players in World Cup squads but their England contingent of three contains two players, Aaron Ramsdale and Ben White, expected to be reserves in Southgate’s squad. The same may go for Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli among a Brazil squad featuring heavy competition for forward places. Mikel Arteta appears to be getting off rather lightly, though how to motivate players disappointed at being underused is yet another consideration to add to the pile.
The response of players to disappointing tournaments is also important. How, for example, might Antonio Conte coax the best from Harry Kane at Tottenham should England’s captain flop in Qatar? Or, to name another player among Spurs’ 11 call-ups, someone carrying a yet heavier burden for his national team, Son Heung‑min? Will his disappointing season so far – and the facial injury he is nursing – cast a shadow over his World Cup and consequently his return to Tottenham? Every player is on a sliding scale. How might they react to playing in a mid‑season tournament in which their country’s expectations are sky‑high while playing for a different coach using probably very different tactics?
For managers such as Graham Potter and Erik ten Hag, relative newcomers to their clubs trying to install a fresh playing doctrine, losing players in mid‑season is unhelpful. Manchester United, sending 14, have made significant improvements under Ten Hag, and though Cristiano Ronaldo can be discounted from the list of players whose fitness he will care about, Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martínez have all been crucial to United’s revival. Each is playing for a nation expected to go deep in the tournament.
Potter’s Chelsea have stalled of late. His players have appeared unresponsive to his tactics. Chelsea will have 12 players in Qatar but a mid‑season training camp planned for Abu Dhabi also gives Potter a decent core with which to work. Reece James, Wesley Fofana, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Marc Cucurella, Trevoh Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jorginho and Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang are among those players not travelling.
Manchester United and Chelsea will return to action at Christmas looking at Newcastle in third place, and while Eddie Howe will not welcome a loss of momentum only five players are being lost from his squad to the World Cup, two of them – Callum Wilson and Nick Pope – likely to be on the England bench. And while Bruno Guimarães is a player Newcastle cannot afford to lose, other leading players from this season in Sven Botman, not picked for Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands team, and Miguel Almíron, whose Paraguay did not qualify, will return to Tyneside after taking short rests.
Further down the table, the World Cup break throws up an opportunity for Nathan Jones, freshly arrived at Southampton, who are sending only two players. Should Bournemouth appoint a new manager – or Gary O’Neil stay on – only the Wales pair of Kieffer Moore and Chris Mepham will not be around.
Three managers ended the season’s first tranche of fixtures under pressure. At West Ham David Moyes will have mixed feelings if England progress deep in the tournament, with Declan Rice a key midfielder. Lucas Paquetá, the summer’s big signing, is yet to shine in east London but is favoured by the Brazil coach, Tite. Perhaps a good showing in Qatar can energise Paquetá’s club season. Jesse Marsch will be roaring on Team USA, though in Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams he will fear fatigue in two players who have become important to Leeds.
Which leaves Frank Lampard, with Everton losing four players to the tournament. Until his mistakes at Bournemouth at the weekend, Jordan Pickford had been exemplary in goal. An injury or the loss of form that can follow for players scapegoated for English failure could mortally wound Everton. Such are the myriad equations the World Cup must turn over in the minds of Premier League managers.
Pep Guardiola admitted Manchester City failed to control Ivan Toney, whose two goals gave Brentford victory over the champions less than 48 hours after he missed the cut for Gareth Southgate’s England World Cup squad.
City’s reverse was a first in the Premier League at home since February, ending a 20-match run, and leaves Guardiola’s side in second place on 32 points before the break for Qatar.
“The better team won – Toney’s exceptional for them,” he said. “We had a lot of problems. We could not make a high press because they did not allow us – long balls from the keeper to the striker and in this process we could not win any balls because when Toney flicks the ball on he creates problems.
“He’s very good, he’s able to win [duels] with all the central defenders, we were not able to control this aspect. Every time a centre-back jumped they suffer.”
Toney, who has 10 league goals this season, was asked about missing out on the World Cup. “It’s disappointing but, listen, I know what I’m capable of and I won’t let it put me down. I just keep going and keep doing well for Brentford.”
The 26-year-old insisted Southgate’s decision had not affected his approach to the game. “The motivation is the boys in the dressing room and the fans, as you can see,” he said.
A delighted Thomas Frank said: “He should have scored five goals – he had five good chances: one in [the] first half, then he scored then he missed one from angle, scored a goal and then missed the last one. Honestly, what a player.
“Gareth picked the squad he believes in but I hope he thinks about Ivan if there is an injury. He proved it today against the best team in the world. Of course him and I both think he should be there but we’re looking from our side and Gareth from the other side and we don’t know who’s right.
“Ivan has a very good family around him. I’ve known him for so long, I have no doubt he’ll come back stronger. I showed my empathy [to him].”
Frank described Brentford’s win as the best in their history. “Maybe this is the single best result. It’s massive. For the fans, I’m so happy we’ve created another unbelievably magic moment for them. The dressing room were fantastic scenes.
“We are the bus stop in Hounslow [as Bees fans sing] against the best team in the world.”
Brentford did to Manchester City precisely what the champions did to Fulham here last week with a breathtaking smash-and-grab win in added time, Ivan Toney’s 98th-minute strike ending City’s sequence of 16 consecutive home victories.
For Toney this was sweet: two days after being omitted from Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad the centre-forward raced into City’s area to roll home his second of the game from Josh Dasilva’s cross and hand the champions defeat. The result means Arsenal will be top at Christmas.
Despite Pep Guardiola sending out an XI containing 10 players who will touch down in Qatar, Brentford proved unbending opponents. Their main ploys were to hit City on the break or in the air and the latter was how Thomas Frank’s men scored first, Toney heading home after Aymeric Laporte inadvertently touched the ball on to him.
Toney’s opener was cancelled out by a Phil Foden rocket just before the break and City had a slew of penalty claims – mainly for handball – which were all turned down by the VAR. Yet though the champions dominated they were never at their finely tuned best, the failure to create enough for Erling Haaland – who did not manage a single shot on target – or anyone else leaving them unable to secure the desired result.
Guardiola’s decision to introduce only Julián Álvarez to shake the contest up from the bench was odd given Riyad Mahrez is game-changer and Jack Grealish is in flying form.
The entertainment began instantly when Rico Henry played in Frank Onyeka, his pace too much for John Stones who watched as Ederson, rushing out, made a low save. Henry then burst down the left and put in a cross that Ederson tipped on to Bryan Mbeumo who squared to Toney. The striker smashed it close to City’s No 1 who dived to save his team.
Duly provoked, Guardiola’s men asserted themselves. Kevin De Bruyne scooped the ball to David Raya’s back post where Haaland, making a first start in three weeks after an ankle injury, leapt and turned the ball back in. Brentford cleared for a corner which, taken by Foden on the left, eventually had Raya saving from Haaland.
Raya then played a vital role in the opener. The keeper’s long free-kick from his half was flicked on by Ben Mee – Manuel Akanji might have challenged him more strongly – and Toney, jumping against Laporte, headed past Ederson.
Game squarely on between the home winning machine and the division’s draw specialists. It brought Guardiola to the technical area from where he saw Foden and Rodri have shots blocked and a dazzling sequence that had João Cancelo, De Bruyne, Foden and Haaland exchanging possession with balletic poise .
What happened next was helter-skelter. Bernardo Silva’s chip was handballed by Henry and a cry went up for a penalty. VAR said no: the left-back’s feet were out of the area, the offending arm difficult to judge. The free-kick given by Peter Bankes stood, which De Bruyne took and when Haaland clashed with Mee, the No 9 went down – another penalty claim – before the ball ricocheted off Rodri to De Bruyne who hit the turf with Henry again in attendance. VAR check was not interested – the Belgian did appear theatrical – but Brentford were hanging on. Yet another handball shout – this time after Ilkay Gündogan’s effort – was then rejected at Stockley Park.
For all this a Foden laser repelled by Raya was City’s first attempt on target, 41 minutes in. It reflected how Guardiola’s men were hitting discordant notes, not least when City broke and Haaland galloped 70 yards to Brentford’s area only for Foden to send his cross too high. But, as the interval neared, the youngster levelled: a De Bruyne corner dropped to him and Foden’s left-foot volley was a picture of perfection. Finally, 74% possession had yielded a City goal.
After the break came a lengthy pause to treat a Laporte head injury: the added time was taken advantage of perfectly by Toney at the death.
Pep Guardiola has said he cannot imagine staying at another club for as long as he has been at Manchester City as he weighs up whether to extend his contract beyond this season.
“Stay in another place for seven years?” he said. “No, I don’t think so. It is difficult to find what I have here as a manager. To be a manager for a long time you need to be so supported. The results help a lot; that is undeniable.
“In this world they sack you, they fire you, we know that. But at big clubs the part of the success of the manager is the chairman, the sporting director especially, and all the people here. It [this support] goes to the media, fans and players. It shows stability. This is why I think only in a few clubs this can happen.”
Asked whether he would discuss a new contract when taking a break during the World Cup, Guardiola said: “I don’t talk about that. Everything is under control, it’s perfect, the decision will be made together with the club the moment it has to be made. I said many times, I had the feeling that both the club and myself are happy to be together.
“It’s not the moment [for this]. Brentford is the only important thing right now. When we have time, when we feel it is the right moment, both sides, we take a decision.”
Guardiola was clear regarding what still motivates him at City after claiming nine major trophies since taking over in 2016. “Having fun,” he said. “There are stressful moments and bad moments – it’s not all the time that you win, all the time you’re happy and all the time it works like you’re thinking [hoping]. But it’s not about achievements after six or seven years, it’s seeing you are comfortable being here.”
Erling Haaland faces a fitness test on his ankle injury before Brentford’s visit for Saturday’s early game.
Last month, Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, advocating for a Super League, lamented that his club have faced Liverpool in just nine competitive games. His wish for more has been granted sooner than he expected and perhaps would have liked. Real beat Liverpool reasonably comfortably in last season’s final and had few issues topping a relatively straightforward group, while Liverpool have suffered a miserable start to the season. With Mohamed Salah returning to form, though, Jürgen Klopp’s side may have improved by February and, out of the title race, can afford to focus on Europe. Aurélien Tchouaméni has joined Real and Eduardo Camavinga was beginning to make an impact last season, but the sense remains that the post-Casemiro midfield is yet to be really tested.
These teams met in last season’s group stage, City winning 6-3 at the Etihad before a 2-1 defeat in Germany, with qualification long since secured. In the first of those games, Leipzig were managed by Jesse Marsch; in the second by the caretaker Achim Beierlorzer. Since then Domenico Tedesco has come and gone and now, under Marco Rose, there has been a significant upturn. Saturday’s 3-0 win at Hoffenheim extended Leipzig’s unbeaten run to 11 games and they have been prolific in that time. The front four of André Silva, Dominik Szoboszlai, Christian Nkunku and Timo Werner, who should be back from his ankle injury by February, will test City on the counter.
Club Brugge were the great surprise of the group stage, winning their first three games without conceding a goal. They secured progress with a 0-0 draw at Atlético Madrid, but the heavy home defeat to Porto that ultimately cost them top spot perhaps gave a truer impression of their abilities: no pushovers, well-organised, but essentially limited. Benfica, meanwhile, ended the group stage in joyous form, with Rafa Silva and João Mario playing probably the best football of their careers. There may be defensive concerns but, even more than the 6-1 win at Maccabi Haifa that meant they topped the group, the 4-3 win over Juventus, when they should have won far more convincingly, demonstrated just how dangerous Roger Schmidt’s side can be.
Tottenham have not lost to Milan in their four previous meetings, a Peter Crouch goal giving them a 1-0 win at San Siro in their last tie in 2010-11, but how good they are at the moment is anyone’s guess. Hampered by injuries to forwards, with a weird inability to play in the first half (particularly when Dejan Kulusevski is absent) and a dislocation between the midfield and the forward line, their results have been rather better than performances so far this season. The Italian champions have suffered only two defeats in Serie A and have in Rafael Leão one of the more exciting forwards in Europe, but they were desperately poorin losing twice to Chelsea during the group stages, with injuries offer only some excuse.
Eintracht Frankfurt v Napoli
Top of Serie A, unbeaten domestically and hugely impressive in the group stage, Napoli may be the most serious Italian challengers since Juventus decided five league titles in five seasons just wasn’t good enough and got rid of Max Allegri. They are playing fast, dynamic football under Luciano Spalletti and, after the failure of Italy, Nigeria and Georgia to qualify for the World Cup, have an unusual number of players who should be refreshed by a winter break. But unfancied as they may be under Oliver Glasner, Eintracht Frankfurt have become masters of the European away leg. Their Europa League success last season featured victories at Real Betis, Barcelona and West Ham, and this season they won on the road against Marseille and, when they absolutely needed it, Sporting.
After a shaky start, progress from the group ended up being straightforward for Chelsea, but this is a club still undergoing transition as the recent league defeats to Brightonand Arsenal have shown. There were problems to be addressed in the squad even before the complications of sanctions, and recent injuries have exposed the imbalances that Graham Potter will need to resolve. With Sevilla in miserable form, Borussia Dortmund qualified for the last 16 easily enough, thanks in no small part to a 4-1 win in Spain, a game that highlighted just how important Jude Bellingham has become to Alen Terzic’s side. He may be only 19 but only he, Julian Brandt and Nico Schlotterback have played all 13 league games this season.
Internazionale v Porto
Porto trail Benfica by eight points domestically but they showed admirable resolve to bounce back from successive defeats at the start of the group stage to qualify with four wins in a row. After suffering a knee injury a month ago, Pepe is a doubt for the World Cup but Porto should have his experience back at the heart of the defence for the last 16. This has not been an easy season domestically for Internazionale and they were twice well-beaten by Bayern Munich, but two fine counterattacking performances against Barcelona ensured progress to the knockout phase for only the second time in the past decade. If Romelu Lukaku can rediscover his form and fitness, his partnership with Lautaro Martínez represents a major threat.
For most of the group stage Paris Saint-Germain seemed to be cruising to top spot, but they were undone at the last by Benfica’s flurry away to Maccabi Haifa and are punished with a repeat of the 2020 final. In a sense they fell into a trap they had dug themselves by drawing at home against Benfica the day after stories broke of Kylian Mbappé’s supposed unhappiness at the club. The competing egos will always be the biggest challenge for a PSG coach. Bayern are top of the Bundesliga again, but four draws and a defeat at Augsburg have led to a certain amount of chuntering about Julian Nagelsmann, despite six wins out of six in the Champions League. His record in big European games is not brilliant.
Liverpool and Real Madrid have been drawn to face each other in the last-16 of the Champions League, bringing together the teams who met in last season’s final in Paris.
The first leg will take place at Anfield in February and for Jürgen Klopp’s side the tie represents an opportunity to avenge May’s 1-0 defeat to Real in the French capital , an encounter that was marred by organisational chaos which led to the kick-off being delayed and hundreds of Liverpool supporters fearing for their safety.
Manchester City, meanwhile, have again been handed a favourable tie, this time against the German side RB Leipzig, while Tottenham face Milan, the Serie A champions, and Chelsea take on Borussia Dortmund.
Elsewhere there is an eye-catching meeting between Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, the French and German champions respectively.
The other last-16 ties see Eintracht Frankfurt face Napoli, Club Brugge face Benfica and Internazionale take on Porto.
The first legs are scheduled for 14/15/21/22 February, with the second legs on 7/8/14/15 March.