Best of enemies

The City trio having to put friendships aside in their quest for Euro 2020 glory

International football never fails to throw up a captivating scenario.

As two of the pre-tournament favourites, a clash between Belgium and Portugal was reserved for July’s Wembley final in the minds of many.

However, the European heavyweights instead step into the ring for a place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, with Roberto Mancini’s Italy awaiting the victors.

And City supporters around the world will certainly have a vested interest in the outcome of one of the tournament’s most highly anticipated showdowns.

Kevin De Bruyne, Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva have left an indelible mark on a truly memorable campaign but, for 90 minutes, they’ll put friendships aside in their quest for one final piece of silverware.

Belgium’s fabled golden generation saw them progress from a team who had failed to qualify for a European Championship since 1984 to the world’s number one ranked side in the space of a decade.

At the forefront of that meteoric rise is one of the finest midfielders of the modern era and, for many, the fulcrum of Manchester City’s devastating brand of free-flowing, free-scoring football.

De Bruyne didn’t need long to make his mark for Belgium at Euro 2020 despite missing their opening victory over Russia as he recovered from the injury sustained in our maiden Champions League final.

Laying on an assist to haul the Red Devils level against a spirited Denmark side on Matchday Two, the PFA Player of the Year would go on to grab the winning goal in Copenhagen.

Finishing off a slick team move by drilling an inch-perfect effort in at Kasper Schmeichel’s near post with 20 minutes to play, De Bruyne’s devastating drive provided the perfect example of the sting that accompanies his obvious elegance.

He followed that vital contribution up with a man of the match display in Belgium’s 2-0 win over Finland, setting up Romelu Lukaku as the Inter Milan forward doubled their advantage in St Petersburg.

Just like at City, the license De Bruyne is given to roam forward makes both himself and the rest of the team tick and, thus far, they have gone a long way towards adding weight to many pundits’ lofty proclamations.

Despite this, the midfielder is under no illusions that the knockout stages throw up an entirely unique proposition.

“I don’t really have a big take-away from the group stages,” De Bruyne conceded following Belgium’s victory over Finland.

“When you play in a competition such as the Euros, we know that the upcoming matches are knockouts, and they’ll be very different from the group stages.

"We know that we aren’t allowed to make a mistake, if you make a mistake, then you’re out of the tournament, you’re going home. It will be completely different.”

As the City midfielder alluded to, knockout football is a truly unique and merciless beast.

Belgium’s march to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, in which they dismantled a much fancied Brazil en route, showed they possess that ‘big game’ psyche.

And they’ll need to prove it once again when they take on a side fabled for their steely, cutthroat tournament mentality.

While always considered capable of going the distance, Portugal’s maiden international trophy in 2016 came as a surprise to many.

The reigning European champions won just one of their six matches en route to the Euro 2016 final inside 90 minutes, famously progressing from Group F without recording a single victory.

The Selecao were the absolute masters of grinding out a result five years ago; it wasn’t pretty, it often gained few admirers, but its effectiveness could not be questioned.

But there’s so much more to this Portuguese side, with Fernando Santos’ current crop boasting a healthy blend of youth, experience, style and substance.

And threaded into its very fabric are two of Manchester City’s standout performers from our memorable 2020/21 campaign.

Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva have both been ever-presents as Portugal successfully negotiated the widely dubbed ‘Group of Death’, featuring world champions France, 2014 World Cup winners Germany and a Hungary side with 60,000 home fans at their backs.

The European champions were 3-0 victors over the Magyars in their opening match and, despite a 4-2 defeat to Ilkay Gundogan’s Germany on Matchday Two, a hard-fought 2-2 draw with Les Bleus secured last 16 qualification.

While their route out of the groups wasn’t as emphatic as De Bruyne and Co.’s, Portugal have once again demonstrated that they’re more than willing and capable of going toe to toe with the best on the continent.

Speaking before Portugal’s clash with Die Mannschaft, Dias reinforced this by declaring that, in order to be the best, you need to prove that you can beat the best.

“I am ready to be at the highest level and in order to win the Euros, we need to be at the highest level,” he insisted.

“The only thing I can say is that, for Manchester City, for the national team, the mentality is the same.

“We want to be better than the opponent, we want to win and individually that helps me a lot.”

That positive attitude has resonated on the pitch for Fernando Santos’ side, with Bernardo’s versatility and technical excellence allowing him to get involved in the build-up and carve out chances for others at the sharp end of the pitch.

It’s a fearlessness that the Selecao have always possessed but, coupled with that expanded, offensive freedom, one that’ll likely make Sunday’s match-up with Belgium one of Euro 2020’s most enthralling clashes.

Will De Bruyne’s unique panache win the day for the Belgians? Or will Ruben Dias’ defensive dominance and Bernardo Silva’s technical flair see the Portuguese prevail?

Seville’s Estadio La Cartuja will play host to two of Europe’s footballing heavyweights, and it could well be a City player who lands the decisive knockout blow.