In isolation, a routine and emphatic FA Cup third-round win for Manchester City against a side from the division below was nothing out of the ordinary, but there was a moment just after half-time that stood out.
Two first-half goals against Huddersfield Town had done little to get the home crowd going. Instead it was the emergence of Kevin de Bruyne from the bench to warm up that got arguably the biggest reaction.
Chants of “one Kevin de Bruyne” rang out, before the Belgium playmaker was given a standing ovation as he came on to the pitch in the 57th minute, marking his return to action for the first time since injuring his hamstring in the opening Premier League game of the season nearly five months ago.
Since joining from Wolfsburg in 2015 he has been one of the most influential players in the Premier League, and the reaction of the Manchester City fans to his return highlights just how significant a role they believe he will play in the second half of the season.
“He’s incredible. Kevin, until he decides to leave or retires, will forever be one of the most beloved players. We are really pleased for him.”
‘He can always see the whole picture’
Despite such a long time out of the game, it did not take long for the 32-year-old to weave the old magic.
He was involved in Manchester City’s fourth goal before providing the assist for their fifth, spotting Jeremy Doku – also making a welcome return from injury – unmarked inside the box and cutting the ball back for him to score.
“We’re all talking about De Bruyne being back and this is why,” said former Everton midfielder Leon Osman, who was commentating on the game for BBC Sport.
“He has the ability to pick out the one spare team-mate in the area. He can always see the whole picture.”
Of course, Manchester City have a squad packed with talent and De Bruyne’s advancing years means he is perhaps not quite so integral to their chances of success as he once was, but he can still be a significant influence.
In the Premier League, Guardiola’s side are third, five points behind leaders Liverpool but with a game in hand, and Reds boss Jurgen Klopp said recently that the whole country was “starting to shake” at the prospect of De Bruyne’s impending return.
The comment was said in jest, although there will have been an element of seriousness about it because any team would become stronger with a player like De Bruyne back to full fitness.
Guardiola, however, was still keen to urge caution as he stressed after the win over Huddersfield that De Bruyne would need many more training sessions to be able to play a full 90 minutes again.
“I said before that he needs to accumulate training sessions more than games,” Guardiola added.
Former Manchester City midfielder Michael Brown also believes it will take time for De Bruyne to get back to his best.
“When you are out for such a long time, you do more gym work so Kevin de Bruyne does look a bit bulkier,” he said.
“When the game was won it was a good time to get him on, he could just feel his way into it. He got on the ball under pressure at times and made some good passes too.
“You have to tread with caution here, it is going to take a number of weeks for him to get back going.”
Manchester City won five trophies in 2023 and in 2024 they could make more history by becoming the first side to win the Premier League four seasons in a row.
With De Bruyne making his return, their chances of doing just that have certainly improved.