The Belgian was in the process of returning from his second knee injury of the season when he suffered yet another set-back over Christmas
After the thrills and spills of Thursday night, this was a very different outing at the Etihad Stadium. Manchester City, having boosted their title chances by beating Liverpool in the most dramatic of games, had a far easier time of it as they saw off Championship strugglers Rotherham United.
Pep Guardiola named a strong team and it did a professional job, racking up a 3-0 lead by half-time and coasting to an eventual 7-0 victory.
Guardiola is clearly taking this competition seriously and you would not be surprised if he wanted to maintain the momentum of Thursday night by ensuring things went to plan here, either.
Yet whatever team he could have chosen for Sunday’s game, Kevin De Bruyne would always have been part of it. He may have missed the Liverpool game but he will be a big part of all that comes next.
Guardiola suggests his injury problems could even boost City as they enter the business end of the season.
“I said many times how important Kevin is for us,” the Catalan said on Sunday. “Without him last season would not have been possible. We have done incredible in terms of results. We have an opponent [Liverpool] that has done better than us. That can happen. We were two seasons without Mendy, we do not have a substitute. We were sad, he was not there but we have to carry on.
“He has been out a long time but perhaps that can help us. He is going to give us extra, the creativity in the final third, the fight.”
City were doing just fine without him for four of the five months he has missed this season – they were top going into December, after all – but injuries to Fernandinho and David Silva over Christmas combined to ensure the champions were not as slick up front and not as resilient at the back. They dropped points and Liverpool took advantage.
De Bruyne was actually involved as City fell to their two shock defeats over Christmas, results that put them so far behind Liverpool in the title race, yet he was nowhere near fit and he was not surrounded by his two most experienced midfield accomplices.
Appearances against Crystal Palace and Leicester City may not have amounted to much in terms of results but it was vital game time as the Belgian geared up to face Liverpool in what was becoming a must-win fixture.
Yet another set-back, minor compared to the two knee injuries he has suffered yet serious enough for him to miss City’s last two games, ruled him out of the big clash.
It has been an incredibly frustrating season for him on a personal level.
As Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp plotted their moves, bringing on expensive substitutes to help wrest any kind of advantage, De Bruyne stayed out on the touchline warming up. When Guardiola finally decided to bring on Kyle Walker and Nicolas Otamendi to help deal with the Liverpool onslaught, he told his most influential player to sit back down on the bench.
On Sunday, however, he was back, back in a starting line-up that could probably be trusted to win an FA Cup final, let alone a home clash against an out-of-sorts Championship side.
Like previous outings this season – not just in December but at the end of October, before he picked up his second knee injury – this was just as much about getting minutes under the belt, again.
A month ago City’s doctors didn’t expect him to be back to his best until February anyway, and that was before his recent set-back, so who knows when we will see the real De Bruyne. Yet there were signs on Sunday that his touch and his vision is sharpening up.
He played 67 minutes against Rotherham and demonstrated those touches and passes that nobody else at City, perhaps nobody else in England, can pull off.
At one point in the first half he controlled an over-hit pass with the top of his head, turned and darted past the man closing him down, free to charge into opposition territory. Unfortunately for him and anybody who would have liked to see it lead to a goal or even a chance, he proceeded to give the ball away by attempting one of his defence-splitting passes.
There were plenty of other occasions when they did come off, however, and plenty more occasions when he got himself into position on the right-hand side and fired in crosses – high or low – begging to be put in the back of the net. Perhaps had Gabriel Jesus been a little sharper, they would have been.
And surely in the coming months they will be. While the level of opposition has to be taken into account, De Bruyne looked far sharper here than he did against Everton in December, for example, when he came on as a substitute and was, understandably after so much time off, incredibly sloppy.
That kind of performance was never on the cards and that became obvious when he weighed up his options on the edge of the box and played an inch-perfect pass to Raheem Sterling to open the scoring, and from that moment on it was a procession.
Guardiola was delighted, especially so with his main man.
“We spoke with him yesterday to play 65-70 minutes at ful intensity and do everything that is good for his rhythm,” he said afterwards. “He played an incredible game, created a lot of chances and he has the vision to see what other people cannot see. Last season he played an incredible number of minutes and this season it is just 400 mintues when everyone else plays 2000. Today he was our captain and he showed on the pitch why.”
City fought their way back into the title race without him on Thursday night but, if they are to catch and then overtake Liverpool, they will need him for the run-in.
It was fairly argued back in August that while De Bruyne is a magical player, if any squad could cope without him it would be City’s. And that proved to be the case until injuries elsewhere took their toll.
Few back then expected Liverpool to be such strong and impressive challengers, either, but there can be no doubt now that City will need to be at their very best if they are to claw back this four-point deficit. And for City to be at their very best, they need De Bruyne.