KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) - If Kevin De Bruyne is having a quiet World Cup, as some pundits have suggested, it can only be because expectations surrounding the Belgium playmaker are so incredibly high.
The midfielder’s highlights reel from Russia would certainly feature the exquisite cross with the outside of the boot that allowed Romelu Lukaku to head home Belgium’s second goal in their opener against Panama.
The 27-year-old followed that with a raking pass down the centre of field to pick out Eden Hazard and give the Belgium captain the opportunity to score the fourth goal in the rout of Tunisia.
In the round of 16 against Japan, it was De Bruyne’s surging 60-metre run out of defence that created the last-gasp winner for Nacer Chadli to seal a remarkable comeback and send the Red Devils into their quarter-final against Brazil.
Add to that his composure under pressure as well as his calming influence on Belgium’s more excitable talents when the chips are down and you have a tournament many players would be proud of.
To be fair to his critics, though, what the midfield maestro has not been able to do in Russia is dictate play in the last third of the pitch as he has done so successfully at club level for Manchester City.
De Bruyne, the creative heart of Pep Guardiola’s team, was directly involved in nearly a quarter of their 106 goals as they romped to the English Premier League title this year.
In Russia, though, coach Roberto Martinez has played him in central midfield with anchor Axel Witsel, a deeper role that has not allowed him the freedom to get into forward positions.
With all due respect to Panama, Tunisia and Japan, the Belgians are well aware they will need a lot more creativity in attack if they are to unpick one of the meanest defences in the tournament on Friday.
It may well be, though, that in Belgium’s desperation to claw their way back from 2-0 down against Japan in Rostov-on-Don that Martinez chanced upon his best formation.
Chadli and Marouane Fellaini were brought on and the latter slotted in alongside Witsel, allowing De Bruyne, who up until that point had been shut down by Japan, more freedom to roam without compromising his defence.
Some 25 minutes later and the biggest comeback in a World Cup knockout match for nearly half a century - since West Germany’s 3-2 victory over England in the 1970 quarterfinals - was complete but Martinez knows that Belgium cannot afford to give the five-times world champions any kind of start on Friday.
The Spaniard must get his formation absolutely right from the start - and that may mean unshackling De Bruyne and giving him a licence to roam.
Editing by Tony Lawrence