Vinicius Junior will be one of the leading candidates for the Ballon d'Or in 2023, according to Rivaldo. 

Brazil international Vinicius was a key part of the Real Madrid side that won LaLiga and the Champions League in 2021-22, scoring the only goal of the game as Los Blancos beat Liverpool in the European final. 

The 21-year-old scored 22 goals and supplied 16 assists – more than he managed across the previous three campaigns combined – in 52 games in all competitions. Only Kylian Mbappe (60), Karim Benzema (59), Christopher Nkunku (51) and Mohamed Salah (46) were involved in more goals in all competitions among players in the top five European leagues. 

Benzema is the favourite for the 2022 Ballon d'Or, which will be awarded in October, but World Cup-winning former attacker Rivaldo believes next year could be Vinicius' time. 

"After a fantastic season with Real Madrid, in which he scored the goal that won the Champions League, I can only hope the young Brazilian attacker continues to develop in this way," Rivaldo told Betfair. 

"He has improved a lot in front of goal and if he continues like this he can claim to be the star of Real Madrid, because Karim Benzema will retire one day. 

"It's hard to name favourites [for the Ballon d'Or] when the season hasn't started, but I don't seem him behind Kylian Mbappe, Kevin De Bruyne and others. 

"The titles that each club wins will be very important in the final choice." 

Mohamed Salah has been named the PFA Players' Player of the Year, while Phil Foden has successfully defended his Young Player of the Year award.

Manchester City edged out Liverpool by a point in a thrilling Premier League title battle, but Salah again claimed a plethora of the individual awards after another fine campaign.

The Egypt international scored 23 top-flight goals to share the Premier League Golden Boot accolade with Son Heung-min, while also securing the Playmaker of the Season award for most assists.

Salah added the Premier League Goal of the Season trophy to his haul, alongside both the FWA and PFA Fans' Player of the Year awards.

Indeed, no player in the English top flight could match the Liverpool forward's 36 goal involvements (23 goals, 13 assists), setting him a class above his competitors.

Kevin De Bruyne was widely expected to be the frontrunner alongside Salah for the PFA Players' Player of the Year title, but the latter has pipped the Belgium international to yet another personal accolade.

Salah becomes the seventh men's player to win the PFA award twice, along with Mark Hughes, Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and De Bruyne.

De Bruyne, Harry Kane, Ronaldo and Salah's club-mates Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane were also in the running to land the award, with Tottenham's Son surprisingly overlooked.

"It's a great honour to win a trophy, individual or collective and this one is big so, very happy and very proud of that," Salah said after winning the award.

"This one is a really good one to win, especially because it's voted by the players. It show you that you've worked really hard and you get what you have worked for.

"I have my room with trophies in a cabinet and I made sure that I had another space for one more. I always keep space and just try to imagine that the trophies are going to come."

Foden became the fifth men's player to win the PFA Young Player of the Year award in consecutive seasons, meanwhile, joining a list that includes Ryan Giggs, Robbie Fowler, Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli.

The City midfielder played an integral role as Pep Guardiola's side lifted their fourth Premier League title in five seasons under the Catalan coach.

The 22-year-old ended the league campaign with nine goals and five assists from his 28 outings.

"I'm really honoured to be honest, especially to win it back-to-back, it shows that I've come a long way this year with the consistency of my game, and I'm really pleased to win it again," Foden said. 

"All the best players in the world have got to show consistency and keep performing at a higher level, and this year I've just tried to do that and try and help my team as much as possible.

"I've been really happy with my performances this year. Hopefully, I can win the main award in the future, but it's all about taking small steps and improving.

"I always love winning individual awards, it's just nice to look at and how far you've come."

Belgium star Eden Hazard feels he is returning to his best after his side came from 1-0 down against Poland on Wednesday to storm home for a 6-1 Nations League win.

From the moment Robert Lewandowski put Poland ahead in the 28th minute, it would be all Belgium, controlling 60 per cent of the possession for the match while producing nine shots on target to zero in the second half.

Axel Witsel made it 1-1 before half-time, before the Red Devils' dynamic duo combined, with Hazard assisting Kevin De Bruyne to pull ahead 2-1.

The last 20 minutes was an attacking exhibition from the Belgians, with two goals to Leandro Trossard, one to Leander Dendoncker, before Lois Openda completed the rout in the 93rd minute.

Speaking to RTL Sport after the win, Hazard said consistent playing time will be the key to returning to his top form.

"I'm going back to being the player I was," he said. "I will become the player I was again by stringing together games, minutes. 

"In the team, there was no more desire than against the Netherlands, it's the score that is very different. 

"But it's true that after Friday's defeat, we talked to each other and made resolutions. But it remains between us, a secret.

"It's a great reaction from the team. We needed to answer after the defeat, it's done, I think a lot of people will sleep well – and me too."

Hazard also highlighted the depth of the Belgian squad, and that he hopes there will be some rotation in the starting-11.

"There are two matches left, we will go to Wales and Poland to win," he said. "I hope coach [Roberto] Martínez will consider that there are plenty of players who can play – not just 11 or 12 players. We really are a group"

While Hazard wants to see some fresh faces getting some run, Martinez made it clear that the Real Madrid man is not willing to be the one to take a seat – and that he is looking like his former self.

"When you see Eden Hazard walk into a room, you can see straight away if he is happy or not," he said. "And there it is clear: there is no more pain. 

"He was better today, his physical stats today are as good as they have been in the past. Hazard's idea is to be in all four games to give him the rhythm he needs."

Martinez was also full of praise of the combination of Trossard and Dendoncker, saying the future of Belgian football remains bright.

"There is a lot of satisfaction tonight, in many areas," he said. "Players have met expectations, such as Leandro Trossard or Leander Dendoncker in defence.

"Leandro Trossard, we have seen him grow over time. And he is one of the examples why Belgium should never worry about the talent there is in this country. For some, talent must take its time to develop.

"Hans Vanaken, Leandro Trossard have had a constant evolution since their arrival in the national team. Leandro must be inspired by boys like Eden Hazard to understand the 'gap' that can exist with the world's top, but he has come so far.

"Dendoncker, sometimes we don't give him enough credit because he is versatile, between a defender and a midfielder. But he never let the team down, defensively he was very alert.

"We saw that Dendoncker could project himself as a midfielder. It was Leander's most mature performance with the national team. There were a lot of games where he proved he could be trusted, and that was the case again tonight."

Belgium bounced back from their thumping by the Netherlands with an emphatic 6-1 Nations League win over Poland on Wednesday.

Roberto Martinez's side suffered a resounding 4-1 defeat to the Oranje on Friday, but a much-improved display at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels saw them return to winning ways in Group A4.

They fell behind to Robert Lewandowski's 28th-minute strike, yet pulled level before half-time thanks to Axel Witsel's superb effort from outside the penalty area.

Kevin De Bruyne then put them ahead after the interval, before a double from substitute Leandro Trossard, a long-range strike from Leander Dendoncker and a late sixth from Lois Openda put the seal on a convincing win.

Despite a bright start, Belgium fell behind shortly before the half-hour mark when Lewandowski controlled Sebastian Szymanski's pass before clipping past the onrushing Simon Mignolet.

However, the Red Devils pulled level three minutes before the interval, Witsel superbly whipping in from 20 yards after Bartlomiej Dragowski had kept out De Bruyne's close-range effort.

Dragowski made an excellent double stop after the break, first pawing away Dendoncker's header and then getting down well to repel Eden Hazard's drive. 

He was powerless to stop De Bruyne in the 59th minute, though, as the Manchester City man rolled past him after being played in by Hazard. 

Trossard made it three with a cool finish after cutting in from the right, before the Brighton and Hove Albion forward added a second with a looping strike from the edge of the penalty area. 

Dendoncker added a fifth with a sublime strike from 25 yards that flashed past Dragowksi, before substitute Openda wrapped up the scoring with almost the last kick of the game.

John Stones says England's Euro 2020 win over Germany "set the bar" as he challenged the Three Lions to respond in Munich after defeat to Hungary.

England underwhelmed on Saturday at the Puskas Arena as Hungary won the Nations League opener 1-0 to record their first victory over the Three Lions since May 1962.

Meanwhile, Germany were held to a 1-1 draw by Italy in the other League A Group 3 game, with Hansi Flick's side next hosting England at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday.

England won the last meeting between the two sides 2-0 at Wembley Stadium last June in the last-16 at Euro 2020, with Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane proving the difference.

The Three Lions have not won consecutive games against Germany since a seven-game winning run between 1935 and 1966, the last game of which was the World Cup final.

Stones believes England must use their Euro 2020 triumph over Die Mannschaft as a benchmark for future performances.

"I think everyone felt the same as us, the incredible stage we beat them on, the occasion, it was a big step for us as a team and nation," Stones said at a pre-match news conference on Monday. 

"To progress to the latter stages of that tournament and show ourselves what we are capable of, we have set a marker and we have to be consistent with winning.

"We have set the bar, that’s the challenge for us as players now, the other day was a big learning curve for us as a collective.

"We have had an incredible run and that stopped, now it’s down to us how we bounce back, how we show our character and experience – what a game to do that in tomorrow."

Stones' Manchester City team-mate Kevin De Bruyne was quick to criticise the Nations League for adding further strain to the footballing calendar.

However, Stones disagrees with the Belgium international as he expressed his pride to play for his country on any occasion.

"You need to always be ready and fighting, the feeling in the camp and the players is that we would play all year round if we could," he added.

"We know how important this period is, not many games leading up to the World Cup, everyone is fighting for their place, trying to play well and trying to create partnerships.

"To play for your nation and be called up...when I was out of the team it hurt so when you are here to play in big games like this you can only cherish the moment and maximise the chances in front of you.

"I see this as a massive learning curve and a big step in the right direction to set us up for the World Cup."

Kevin De Bruyne says he is excited to work with "top striker" Erling Haaland at Manchester City, admitting the arrival of the 21-year-old might enable him to build on his already impressive assist figures.

De Bruyne was named Premier League Player of the Season as City won their fourth top-flight title in five seasons last month, with the midfielder top-scoring for Pep Guardiola's men with 15 league goals during the 2021-22 campaign, also adding eight assists.

Despite his impressive goalscoring return, the Belgian fell some way short of his tally of 20 Premier League assists in the 2019 -20 campaign (a joint single-season record in the competition, along with Thierry Henry in 2002-03) – but De Bruyne's attempts to record similar figures in the future could be aided by the presence of Haaland.

The striker scored 86 goals in 89 appearances for Borussia Dortmund after joining from RB Salzburg in January 2020, and is expected to thrive with De Bruyne providing him with service after agreeing a move to the Etihad Stadium.

Speaking to Belgian outlet HLN, De Bruyne said City's acquisition of Haaland was good news for both the team and himself.

"Erling Haaland is a top striker. His move should help us to grow as a team," he said.

"Everybody expects a lot. They [the club] have always been looking for a number nine, but I think it'll be good to have that striker that maybe scores 20 to 25 goals a season."

Asked whether the Norwegian's arrival would help him to up his own already outstanding creative numbers, De Bruyne added: "Maybe. There have been years that I have more assists.

"But my chance creation and other things have remained consistent. Numbers are a part of football but they never tell you the full story."

No other City player came close to the 87 chances De Bruyne created in the Premier League in 2021-22, with fellow midfielder Bernardo Silva second on 59.

Meanwhile, De Bruyne, who will turn 31 later this month, was also asked whether the upcoming World Cup in Qatar – at which Belgium will face Canada, Morocco, and Croatia in Group F – could be his last.

The midfielder, who says the Red Devils are "slightly more of an outsider" to win the tournament than they were in 2018 when they reached the semi-finals in Russia, plans on playing international football until at least Euro 2024 but will not give any assurances beyond that date.

"I will continue with the national team," he added. "I don't know how long. In any case, until the European Championship in 2024 – if bad things don't happen. 

"We'll see how I feel. Quality trumps quantity for me. 

"It is also difficult to find the perfect balance between the family and the life we lead. My wife understands that, the children occasionally. They sometimes regret that daddy cannot be there. Later they will understand."

Son Heung-min can count himself unlucky after the Tottenham star missed out on a nomination for the PFA Player of the Year.

Spurs forward Son scored 23 Premier League goals in the 2021-22 season, sharing the competition's Golden Boot award with Mohamed Salah.

The Liverpool talisman is included on the list of six nominees, alongside team-mates Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane.

Son's strike partner Harry Kane does make the cut, while Kevin de Bruyne is the sole representative of champions Manchester City.

His team-mates Bernardo Silva and Rodri may also consider themselves hard done by, having both enjoyed wonderful campaigns.

Cristiano Ronaldo could not take Manchester United into the Champions League on his return to the club, but his 18 league goals have seen him receive a nomination.

The PFA also confirmed the list of nominees for the Young Player of the Year award, with City attacker Phil Foden joined by Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka and his club-mate Emile Smith Rowe.

That trio will go up against Chelsea pair Conor Gallagher, who shined on loan at Crystal Palace this season, and Reece James, as well as Aston Villa's Jacob Ramsey, for the award.

Mohamed Salah and Son Heung-min were more deserving winners of the Premier League Player of the Season award than Kevin De Bruyne.

That is according to Liverpool legend Phil Thompson, who also told Stats Perform that Erling Haaland will not necessarily make Manchester City a stronger side next season.

City playmaker De Bruyne last week edged out Son, Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joao Cancelo, Jarrod Bowen, Bukayo Saka and James Ward-Prowse for the award.

The Belgium international played a key part in City's successful title defence with 15 goals in 30 league appearances and a further eight assists.

Remarkably, the 30-year-old's 15 goals came from an expected goals (xG) return of just 6.2, meaning he scored nine goals more than expected from the quality of his chances.

However, his 23 direct goal involvements were fewer than Salah (36), Son (30) and Harry Kane (26) managed, albeit having played at least five games fewer than any of those.

De Bruyne ranked above each of those players for chances created (87), though, and was behind only Alexander-Arnold (90) and Bruno Fernandes (89).

But Thompson believes that Liverpool forward Salah and Tottenham's Son – who shared the Golden Boot with 23 goals – were more consistent than De Bruyne over the season.

"I think it has to be Mo. I know the players have all given it to Kevin De Bruyne and he's a wonderful player," Thompson said. 

"He's been wonderful for the last couple of months, but it's over a season and people get swayed by people who finish the season well. 

"That is still in their minds when they're just putting their name on that form, or whether it's all done on phone now. 

"But I would like to think over the whole year, and yes, Mo hasn't been rattling them in for the last six weeks or so, but overall, he has been.

"They were talking around Christmas time that this is the best player in the world. He's not gone from being the best player in the world to playing second fiddle to De Bruyne. 

"I'm sorry. Mo Salah was the player of the season and then probably Son has probably been more consistent over the whole nine months."

City's title triumph was their fourth in the past five seasons and they have already moved to bolster their squad with the signing of Haaland from Borussia Dortmund.

Haaland scored 86 goals in 89 games for Dortmund, a tally only bettered by Kylian Mbappe (90) and Robert Lewandowski (123) since January 18, 2020. 

But, citing a rather mixed campaign for British record signing Jack Grealish, Thompson questioned whether Pep Guardiola will get the most out of Haaland.

"He is a wonderful player, a great player," said Thompson, who won 17 major honours across 13 years playing for Liverpool, before a stint coaching the Reds.

"Is he a missing piece for the jigsaw for them in the Champions League? They can still do things, but it might upset them a little bit. 

"As you see with Grealish, who was £100million, has that worked? He's playing as a left-winger because it's the system that Pep likes. 

"So you've got an out-and-out centre-forward who, yes, is full of energy, but he doesn't understand the press that City use. It'll be a change for them. That might change things." 

Liverpool, who have seen Luis Diaz hit the ground running since joining from Porto in January, are themselves expected to be active in the upcoming transfer window.

A deal for Fulham teenager Fabio Carvalho is already in place, but Thompson is not sure if signing a big name is really necessary in order to keep pace with champions City.

"We have a set pattern, though I still hope that we'll sign a couple of players," he said.

"I do believe that's what you have to do all the time to give that little bit of a buzz in the dressing room, to change things up on the pitch. And we have just come up short."

The 92 points accrued by Liverpool this season is the joint-eighth most in Premier League history, yet it was not enough to pip City, who finished one point better off.

Thompson added: "We have to find the magic ingredient to go that extra couple of points to win that league, but we don't have to do too much. 

"Chelsea signed Romelu Lukaku and he played well those first half a dozen games. They were going to win the league the way the season started and look how that's unravelled.

"It's not necessarily a gimme that it always works."

Kevin De Bruyne expressed his pride after Manchester City sealed a dramatic Premier League title win on the final day of the season, highlighting how his side had to be consistently "excellent" in the face of Liverpool's challenge.

City went into their home contest with Aston Villa knowing a win would confirm their fourth top-flight title in five seasons, though things looked desperate for Pep Guardiola's men when Matty Cash and Philippe Coutinho gave Steven Gerrard's men a 2-0 lead.

But an Ilkay Gundogan brace, scored either side of Rodri's leveller, sparked jubilant scenes as City retained their crown despite Liverpool's 3-1 victory over Wolves, with De Bruyne providing the assist for the all-important winner.

The win marked the first time City had come from two goals down to win a Premier League game since beating Norwich City 3-2 in February 2005, while Liverpool finished second with a massive 92 points – the second-highest tally amassed by a team to not win the title after their own 97 in 2018-19.

Jurgen Klopp's side pushed City all the way after going unbeaten through their last 19 games of the season, winning 16, and De Bruyne said overcoming Liverpool's relentless challenge was a great source of pride.

"It's hard because Liverpool push you that far, and you need to be excellent all the time," he told Sky Sports. "There's never a moment where you can play a little bit less, losing some points means it's the end.

"We feel so proud because they've pushed us that far for years and years, but we've still managed to find a way."

De Bruyne was named the Premier League's Player of the Season after top-scoring for Guardiola's men with 15 league goals, also adding eight assists and either scoring or laying on a goal in 14 of City's last 20 league outings.

The Belgium international also joked his cross for Gundogan's winner was his best of the campaign, as he hailed the Germany midfielder - and fellow substitute Oleksandr Zinchenko - for changing the game.

Asked where his assist ranked, De Bruyne replied: "The best, the best, honestly!

"It's not the best cross but Ilkay is there, I just wanted to put it in a place where we could score. Ilkay and Zinchenko changed the game for me.

"He [Gundogan] has got a real good timing when going in front of goal, and he won us the game."

Meanwhile, just 12 minutes and 22 seconds separated Villa going 2-0 up and Gundogan completing the turnaround, and De Bruyne admitted City were beginning to panic before scoring their first.

"Maybe [we panicked] a couple of times! But I think it's normal in this situation, it's so different, you can't really explain it," he added. "We tried to stay as calm as possible, but sometimes there was a little bit.

"2-1 just changed the whole situation, you see the whole stadium changes, the atmosphere, and we just didn't look back. 

"You just go for it, you're losing anyway, and you just want to change the situation, and that's what we did. 

"It changed quickly with the first and the second goal, I think we created more chances before that, but it is what it is.

"I knew it was 1-1 at half-time [in Liverpool's clash with Wolves] but after I'm not too sure – I think it was 1-1 for a long time.

"Even then, I think we looked at ourselves and if you see how we tried to change the situation, we tried to force it ourselves and didn't want to look at Liverpool. Luckily, we managed it."

Manchester City have done the job, just about.

Their remarkable 3-2 comeback victory over Aston Villa on Sunday ensured that the Premier League title is theirs for a fourth time in five seasons, ending Liverpool's hopes of a remarkable quadruple in the process.

While Liverpool will now turn their full focus to the Champions League final as they look to secure a third trophy of the campaign, Pep Guardiola will look to build on his side's domestic dominance heading into next season.

Erling Haaland's impending arrival is a strong start to doing just that, and City will have another go at the Champions League next term too with the Norway forward leading their line – the issue of playing without a "proper" number nine finally put to bed.

Had Guardiola and City got their way in 2021, they would have had a striker for this season, too, but Tottenham did not budge on their valuation of Harry Kane.

Yet that lack of a natural centre forward has ultimately not proved costly, and here, Stats Perform looks at the key moments behind City's title success.

Grealish arrives, but no Kane

City broke the English transfer record to sign Jack Grealish for £100million, and while the England international's form has at times been questioned, it was a statement of intent from the champions.

That being said, they missed out on Kane, meaning Guardiola would once again have to do it the hard way... or, at least, rely on his plethora of world-class attacking midfielders to play up front.

The failure to sign Kane was highlighted, ironically, in a 1-0 defeat to Spurs to start the season, though City bounced back with 5-0 thrashings of Norwich City and Arsenal.

Supreme at Stamford Bridge 

City fell short in last season's Champions League final against Chelsea, but on September 25, they rocked up at Stamford Bridge and, if the signing of Grealish was a statement of intent made off the pitch, this performance was one made very much on it.

Guardiola's team delivered a stellar display, especially in the first half, with Gabriel Jesus' goal enough to end Chelsea's unbeaten start to the season.

They may have only won 1-0, but City finished with 15 shots to five, registering an xG (expected goals) of 1.4 to 0.2 and dominated the ball (59 per cent).

Old Trafford dominance

City suffered a surprise set-back at the end of October, losing 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace. Fortunately for them, Liverpool drew 2-2 to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield on the same day, and Guardiola's team rallied the following week.

A 2-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford was as dominant as you could get at the home of a city rival. The xG tells its own story – City's 2.37 to United's 0.75, 16 attempts to five, with five on target from the visitors, who hit the woodwork twice.

Twelve of City's shots came from inside United's area, showing just how easy they found it to carve open their neighbours, who managed just four touches in the opposition box (City had 32, and 92 final-third entries). The victory sparked a 12-game winning run that was bookended by a 1-0 home success over Chelsea and included a 7-0 rout of Leeds United and 6-3 dispatching of Leicester City.

Good fortune at Goodison

A 3-2 home defeat to Spurs snapped a 15-game unbeaten run that had seemingly put City well on track to securing the title with relative ease. And it appeared they may well drop points again in the next match, a tough fixture against relegation-battling Everton at Goodison Park at the end of February.

Phil Foden struck eight minutes from time to seal a 1-0 victory that moved City six points clear at the top of the Premier League, but Everton were denied the chance for a late equaliser from the penalty spot when referee Paul Tierney and VAR Chris Kavanagh failed to spot a handball by Rodri.

The Premier League clarified that the penalty was not awarded because there was insufficient evidence to show the ball struck Rodri below the level of his armpit, not because Richarlison had strayed offside in the build-up, and referees chief Mike Riley subsequently apologised to Everton for the mistake.

"Can this episode affect a whole season? I will review a lot of incidents. It looks offside for Richarlison; if it's not offside, it's a penalty," said Guardiola after the incident. Had Everton been awarded the penalty, and converted it, then the title might well be Liverpool's.

Champions League heartbreak fuels De Bruyne-inspired charge

With both Premier League meetings between the title rivals finishing all square, it was Liverpool who got the edge in the FA Cup in April, winning the semi-final clash 3-2. The sides seemed destined to meet again in the Champions League final, yet Real Madrid had other ideas.

Quicker than Carlo Ancelotti could raise his eyebrow, Madrid turned a tie that seemed all wrapped up in City's favour on its head thanks to two Rodrygo goals, and Karim Benzema's extra-time penalty capped off one of the all-time great comebacks, and one of the all-time worst capitulations, in the competition's history.

Yet City, who had beaten Leeds 4-0, Watford 5-1 and Brighton 3-0 in their previous three league outings, responded with a 5-0 demolition of in-form Newcastle United, with late goals from Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling really doing wonders for their goal difference. To boost their mood, Liverpool had drawn with Spurs at Anfield a day earlier.

That advantage grew further still three days later – Kevin De Bruyne scoring four goals (three with his weaker left foot) in a 5-1 defeat of Wolves.

Gundogan sparks a comeback for the ages

City's second-half comeback against West Ham dashed Liverpool's hopes of a true slip-up, though Riyad Mahrez's penalty miss in that match did allow the Reds to close the gap to one point heading into the final day, meaning Guardiola's side needed a win to guarantee the title.

In a narrative a Hollywood scriptwriter would have done well to dream up, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard was the manager tasked with ending City's charge and, in the process, giving the Reds the title (should, of course, Jurgen Klopp's team beat Wolves).

And that narrative seemed set to rule when Villa went 2-0 up at the Etihad Stadium thanks to goals from Matty Cash and ex-Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, with the visitors' two-goal lead still intact going into the last 15 minutes.

But Ilkay Gundogan – on what could well have been his final City appearance – had other ideas.

After coming on from the bench, he hauled City back into it with a header from Raheem Sterling's cross and, following Rodri's equaliser, the Germany international tucked in from a Kevin De Bruyne centre to complete a stunning, title-clinching comeback.

Four of Manchester City's six Premier League triumphs have gone right to the wire, where margins are so fine the title battle can be settled by a single man in a single moment.

Sergio Aguero of course set the standard in 2011-12 with surely the most iconic goal of the Premier League era, defeating QPR at the death and clinching a first City championship in 44 years.

Then, in 2018-19, it was Vincent Kompany's turn. Although the departing City captain made only 17 league appearances that year, he will forever be associated with the title win after his thunderous strike secured a vital late-season victory over Leicester City.

"Where do you want your statue, Vincent Kompany?" asked Sky Sports' Gary Neville. Both Aguero and Kompany – and those celebrations – have since been committed to steel structures outside the Etihad Stadium.

The City hero was perhaps not quite so clear-cut in 2013-14, when Liverpool's collapse took centre stage, but Yaya Toure's 20 goals from midfield kept his side in touch. While City spent only 15 days of the season at the summit, the win that put them there in the final week perhaps provided the defining image of the champions' campaign, as Toure charged through the Aston Villa defence to score a goal that BBC Sport's Alan Shearer considered "like watching a 15-year-old against under-12s".

Three City legends have had seasons to call their own. Kevin De Bruyne, until now, had not.

De Bruyne was the PFA Players' Player of the Year in consecutive years, but the 2019-20 campaign in which he equalled Thierry Henry's 20-assist, single-season record ended with Liverpool on top. The 2020-21 season played out largely without fans and ultimately without a serious challenge to City, robbing their leading man of his platform.

Consistent excellence had for so long characterised the midfielder's career rather than any particular peak.

Now, however, after the decisive assist in another dramatic fightback against Villa on Sunday, 2021-22 might be remembered as the De Bruyne season – a most unexpected conclusion given how the campaign started, as perhaps his worst in a City shirt.

'Difficult physically and mentally'

The player of the year he may have been, but De Bruyne's 2020-21 season did not finish in the manner he would have wished.

The former Chelsea man lasted only an hour of City's Champions League final defeat to the Blues last May, suffering facial fractures that impacted his preparation for Euro 2020. De Bruyne found form again at the finals, only to hobble out of Belgium's last-16 win over Portugal with an ankle issue.

Although De Bruyne played in the next round, as Belgium lost to Italy, he continued to be hampered by the injury at the start of this season, appearing in City's Premier League opener but then not again for almost four weeks.

"It's been a bit difficult physically and mentally," the 30-year-old told the MIDMID podcast in November, revealing he had played through "some serious pain".

"It's going to be a little more difficult this year than usual," De Bruyne suggested, and that seemed a fair prediction.

The City superstar, who also missed time with COVID-19, made his 10th league appearance of the season in a 1-0 home win over Wolves on December 11. At that stage, he had scored only twice in the competition and failed to provide a single assist – averaging a goal involvement every 246 minutes.

The only comparable De Bruyne season in a City shirt was in 2018-19, when two knee ligament injuries meant his 10th league appearance did not come until early February. Over 465 minutes up to that point, he scored once.

That is the sole other example of De Bruyne not contributing an assist through his first 10 league outings in a season for City; in fact, he had tallied at least four assists and six goal involvements by that point in each of his other five campaigns prior to 2021-22.

A week before De Bruyne's podcast appearance last year, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez was also asked to address his star man's form, acknowledging the "scrutiny" he faced while underperforming in a team as talented as City's.

"I'm not worried at all," Martinez said. "We feel that his best football is coming back."

De Bruyne added: "I just needed more time than expected."

'Now he scores a lot'

De Bruyne's 11th game of this campaign was very different. In a 7-0 City win over Leeds United, the team's talisman doubled his seasonal tally by scoring twice, including a thunderous 25-yard drive for his second.

"For the whole team, it's a booster," De Bruyne told NBC Sports – although that surely applied more to the two-goal star than his team-mates, with City moving four points clear at the top of the table with the victory.

"There's been a lot happening this year, a little bit out of my control, so the only thing I can do is try to work hard and come back as quick as possible," he said.

It was clearly a turning point for De Bruyne, who scored 13 goals and provided eight assists in 20 matches from the Leeds game until the end of the season. A goal involvement every 82 minutes over this period just beats his single-season best from 2019-20 (85 minutes per goal involvement).

Yet De Bruyne's role has altered in the past two years. He did not match his outstanding 33 goal involvements from the year Liverpool won the title, but 15 goals represent a career high.

The reason for that change perhaps has more to do with De Bruyne's City team-mates than the player himself.

In 2019-20, six of De Bruyne's 20 assists were for record goalscorer Aguero – more than for any other player. Of course, Aguero has since departed.

The retired striker was City's leading marksman in six of his 10 league campaigns in Manchester, including each of his first four playing alongside De Bruyne.

With Aguero gone and Erling Haaland not arriving until next term, City needed someone to fill the void in front of goal. De Bruyne, whether used in midfield or attack, has done that in the second half of the season.

Despite the slow start, City's top scorer has scored with 19.2 per cent of his shots in 2021-22; his previous high, in his debut 2015-16 season, saw a shot conversion rate of 14.3 per cent.

"I like it a lot," Pep Guardiola said in April after De Bruyne had netted four in four games – including two against Manchester United and one against Liverpool.

"He is not just a player to make assists – now he scores a lot of goals. I've said to him many times, 'I know you enjoy making a lot of assists, for you and your team-mates, but you have to score goals to reach another stage'. Now he is doing that, a lot of goals and chances."

'We have to move on'

De Bruyne either scored or assisted in 14 of those 20 games in the run-in, but he saved his best performances for when it mattered most – at least in the league.

There were suspicions City's season might fall apart when Real Madrid's remarkable semi-final recovery eliminated Guardiola's side from the Champions League at the start of May. With Liverpool in hot pursuit in the Premier League, the leaders were afforded little time to regroup as they headed straight into matches against Newcastle United at home and Wolves away.

"We are going to play against Newcastle thinking about [the Madrid defeat], for sure," said Guardiola in an enthralling news conference, revealing two days before the Newcastle match: "We didn't speak. No words can help what all of us feel. It's just a question of time."

Time, and Tottenham drawing at Liverpool, as it turned out.

A rare slip-up at Anfield on the eve of City's game against Newcastle eased the pressure on the champions. Then De Bruyne got to work.

Briefly restored to his 2019-20 vintage, De Bruyne attempted only a single shot at the Etihad but created six chances in a 5-0 win – his most in a single game this season – including an assist for Rodri's goal.

That performance prompted Jamie Carragher in the Sky Sports studio to declare De Bruyne "the greatest player to ever play for Manchester City", "the best midfield player in the world right now" and "the best player in the Premier League for the past three or four years".

Yet better was still to come at Wolves, where City became the first team in English top-flight history to win five consecutive league games by a margin of at least three goals. De Bruyne alone outscored Wolves by three, netting four in a 5-1 victory.

The first hat-trick of his City career was completed inside 24 minutes – the third-fastest in Premier League history – to blow away a Wolves team who had briefly threatened to cause their visitors some problems.

"It should have been five, to be honest," De Bruyne told Sky Sports, before conversation turned back to the Madrid match.

"It's very difficult to explain because it was just a mad five minutes," he said. "It's not that we played bad or something, it was just five minutes that you can't explain as a player. I don't know what happened. I was out of control on the bench anyway, so you feel a little bit in shock. It's not nice and the feeling is still not nice.

"But you need to move on. We're trying now to win the title and whatever happened unfortunately happened. We have to move on."

The Wolves display would have been fresh in Carragher's mind on Monday when he named De Bruyne his personal player of the season. The Premier League award followed ahead of the crucial final-day assist for Ilkay Gundogan, although other individual end-of-season honours may evade De Bruyne. Many are voted on well in advance of the final weeks of the campaign – before De Bruyne had done his best work.

Mohamed Salah is the FWA Footballer of the Year and may also be recognised by the PFA; he scored four goals in his final 11 games – as many as De Bruyne managed on one night in Wolverhampton.

A Premier League title, defined by his clutch performances, is not a bad consolation.

Kevin De Bruyne has been named the Premier League's Player of the Season.

The Manchester City star has driven Pep Guardiola's team to the verge of a fourth title in the space of five seasons with some sensational displays.

Despite having a rather stuttering start to the campaign after suffering an eye injury in last season's Champions League final, and then sustaining another problem during Belgium's Euro 2020 quarter-final defeat to Italy, the 30-year-old has gone on to score 15 goals in the Premier League so far in 2021-22.

Remarkably, those goals have come from an expected goals (xG) value of just 5.8. He has also provided seven assists.

Four of those came in City's 5-1 thrashing of Wolves earlier in May, with De Bruyne becoming the first player since Harry Kane in May 2017 to score three goals in a Premier League game with his weak foot, while he is the first midfielder in the competition's history to do so.

Indeed, he has contributed to 13 goals across his last nine Premier League appearances to truly take the reins of City's title charge.

While City still need to beat Steven Gerrard's Aston Villa on the final day to ensure the title is theirs, De Bruyne's stellar efforts have been rewarded.

The playmaker previously won the award in 2020, after matching Thierry Henry's Premier League assists record, while a City player has taken the prize for a third successive season, with Ruben Dias having won the accolade last year.

City may be signing Erling Haaland ahead of next term but this season they have once again operated without a recognised number nine, though De Bruyne's 15 strikes put him as the team's leading scorer.

Over his last 19 league matches, De Bruyne has registered a goal involvement every 81 minutes, edging out his single-season best from 2019-20 (85 minutes per goal involvement). He is also the only player to average over three shots and over three chances created per 90 minutes this season in the Premier League.

De Bruyne's triumph seals a fine day for City players, with Phil Foden having been selected as the league's Young Player of the Season.

Golden Boot contenders Mohamed Salah and Son Heung-min were also on the eight-man shortlist for the Player of the Year award, which included Joao Cancelo, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jarrod Bowen, Bukayo Saka and James Ward-Prowse.

Three of Manchester City's five previous Premier League triumphs have gone right to the wire, where margins are so fine the title battle can be settled by a single man in a single moment.

Sergio Aguero of course set the standard in 2011-12 with surely the most iconic goal of the Premier League era, defeating QPR at the death and clinching a first City championship in 44 years.

Then, in 2018-19, it was Vincent Kompany's turn. Although the departing City captain made only 17 league appearances that year, he will forever be associated with the title win after his thunderous strike secured a vital late-season victory over Leicester City.

"Where do you want your statue, Vincent Kompany?" asked Sky Sports' Gary Neville. Both Aguero and Kompany – and those celebrations – have since been committed to steel structures outside the Etihad Stadium.

The City hero was perhaps not quite so clear-cut in 2013-14, when Liverpool's collapse took centre stage, but Yaya Toure's 20 goals from midfield kept his side in touch. While City spent only 15 days of the season at the summit, the win that put them there in the final week perhaps provided the defining image of the champions' campaign, as Toure charged through the Aston Villa defence to score a goal that BBC Sport's Alan Shearer considered "like watching a 15-year-old against under-12s".

Three City legends have had seasons to call their own. Kevin De Bruyne, until now, had not.

De Bruyne was the PFA Players' Player of the Year in consecutive years, but the 2019-20 campaign in which he equalled Thierry Henry's 20-assist, single-season record ended with Liverpool on top. The 2020-21 season played out largely without fans and ultimately without a serious challenge to City, robbing their leading man of his platform.

Consistent excellence had for so long characterised the midfielder's career rather than any particular peak.

Now, however, 2021-22 might be remembered as the De Bruyne season – a most unexpected conclusion given how the campaign started, as perhaps his worst in a City shirt.

'Difficult physically and mentally'

The player of the year he may have been, but De Bruyne's 2020-21 season did not finish in the manner he would have wished.

The former Chelsea man lasted only an hour of City's Champions League final defeat to the Blues last May, suffering facial fractures that impacted his preparation for Euro 2020. De Bruyne found form again at the finals, only to hobble out of Belgium's last-16 win over Portugal with an ankle issue.

Although De Bruyne played in the next round, as Belgium lost to Italy, he continued to be hampered by the injury at the start of this season, appearing in City's Premier League opener but then not again for almost four weeks.

"It's been a bit difficult physically and mentally," the 30-year-old told the MIDMID podcast in November, revealing he had played through "some serious pain".

"It's going to be a little more difficult this year than usual," De Bruyne suggested, and that seemed a fair prediction.

The City superstar, who also missed time with COVID-19, made his 10th league appearance of the season in a 1-0 home win over Wolves on December 11. At that stage, he had scored only twice in the competition and failed to provide a single assist – averaging a goal involvement every 246 minutes.

The only comparable De Bruyne season in a City shirt was in 2018-19, when two knee ligament injuries meant his 10th league appearance did not come until early February. Over 465 minutes up to that point, he scored once.

That is the sole other example of De Bruyne not contributing an assist through his first 10 league outings in a season for City; in fact, he had tallied at least four assists and six goal involvements by that point in each of his other five campaigns prior to 2021-22.

A week before De Bruyne's podcast appearance last year, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez was also asked to address his star man's form, acknowledging the "scrutiny" he faced while underperforming in a team as talented as City's.

"I'm not worried at all," Martinez said. "We feel that his best football is coming back."

De Bruyne added: "I just needed more time than expected."

'Now he scores a lot'

De Bruyne's 11th game of this campaign was very different. In a 7-0 City win over Leeds United, the team's talisman doubled his seasonal tally by scoring twice, including a thunderous 25-yard drive for his second.

"For the whole team, it's a booster," De Bruyne told NBC Sports – although that surely applied more to the two-goal star than his team-mates, with City moving four points clear at the top of the table with the victory.

"There's been a lot happening this year, a little bit out of my control, so the only thing I can do is try to work hard and come back as quick as possible," he said.

It was clearly a turning point for De Bruyne, who has scored 13 goals and provided seven assists in 19 matches from the Leeds game onwards. A goal involvement every 81 minutes over this period just beats his single-season best from 2019-20 (85 minutes per goal involvement).

Yet De Bruyne's role has altered in the past two years. He will not match his outstanding 33 goal involvements from the year Liverpool won the title, but 15 goals already represent a career high with one game still to play on Sunday.

The reason for that change perhaps has more to do with De Bruyne's City team-mates than the player himself.

In 2019-20, six of De Bruyne's 20 assists were for record goalscorer Aguero – more than for any other player. Of course, Aguero has since departed.

The retired striker was City's leading marksman in six of his 10 league campaigns in Manchester, including each of his first four playing alongside De Bruyne.

With Aguero gone and Erling Haaland not arriving until next term, City needed someone to fill the void in front of goal. De Bruyne, whether used in midfield or attack, has done that in the second half of the season.

Despite the slow start, City's top scorer has scored with 20.3 per cent of his shots in 2021-22; his previous high, in his debut 2015-16 season, saw a shot conversion rate of 14.3 per cent.

"I like it a lot," Pep Guardiola said in April after De Bruyne had netted four in four games – including two against Manchester United and one against Liverpool.

"He is not just a player to make assists – now he scores a lot of goals. I've said to him many times, 'I know you enjoy making a lot of assists, for you and your team-mates, but you have to score goals to reach another stage'. Now he is doing that, a lot of goals and chances."

'We have to move on'

De Bruyne has either scored or assisted in 13 of his past 19 games, but he saved his best performances for when it mattered most – at least in the league.

There were suspicions City's season might fall apart when Real Madrid's remarkable semi-final recovery eliminated Guardiola's side from the Champions League at the start of May. With Liverpool in hot pursuit in the Premier League, the leaders were afforded little time to regroup as they headed straight into matches against Newcastle United at home and Wolves away.

"We are going to play against Newcastle thinking about [the Madrid defeat], for sure," said Guardiola in an enthralling news conference, revealing two days before the Newcastle match: "We didn't speak. No words can help what all of us feel. It's just a question of time."

Time, and Tottenham drawing at Liverpool, as it turned out.

A rare slip-up at Anfield on the eve of City's game against Newcastle eased the pressure on the champions. Then De Bruyne got to work.

Briefly restored to his 2019-20 vintage, De Bruyne attempted only a single shot at the Etihad but created six chances in a 5-0 win – his most in a single game this season – including an assist for Rodri's goal.

That performance prompted Jamie Carragher in the Sky Sports studio to declare De Bruyne "the greatest player to ever play for Manchester City", "the best midfield player in the world right now" and "the best player in the Premier League for the past three or four years".

Yet better was still to come at Wolves, where City became the first team in English top-flight history to win five consecutive league games by a margin of at least three goals. De Bruyne alone outscored Wolves by three, netting four in a 5-1 victory.

The first hat-trick of his City career was completed inside 24 minutes – the third-fastest in Premier League history – to blow away a Wolves team who had briefly threatened to cause their visitors some problems.

"It should have been five, to be honest," De Bruyne told Sky Sports, before conversation turned back to the Madrid match.

"It's very difficult to explain because it was just a mad five minutes," he said. "It's not that we played bad or something, it was just five minutes that you can't explain as a player. I don't know what happened. I was out of control on the bench anyway, so you feel a little bit in shock. It's not nice and the feeling is still not nice.

"But you need to move on. We're trying now to win the title and whatever happened unfortunately happened. We have to move on."

The Wolves display would have been fresh in Carragher's mind on Monday when he named De Bruyne his personal player of the season. Whether established individual end-of-season honours beckon for De Bruyne is another matter, though. He was nominated for the official Premier League prize, but many such awards are voted on well in advance of the final weeks of the campaign – before De Bruyne had done his best work.

Mohamed Salah is the FWA Footballer of the Year; he has scored three goals in his past 10 games – fewer than De Bruyne managed on one night in Wolverhampton.

A Premier League title, defined by his clutch performances, would not be a bad consolation.

Kevin De Bruyne and Son Heung-min have joined Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold in being nominated for the Premier League's Player of the Season award.

De Bruyne, who won the award in 2019-20 despite Manchester City missing out on the title to Liverpool that season, is enjoying his best goalscoring campaign for the club.

He netted four goals in a 5-1 thrashing of Wolves on Wednesday, taking him to 19 in all competitions.

Salah is the only other past winner to be up for the award, having scored 22 goals and provided 13 assists (both league-high tallies) in another outstanding campaign as Liverpool battle City for the title.

Fellow Reds star Alexander-Arnold is also on the shortlist after racking up 12 assists in 31 appearances, as is Tottenham forward Son, who scored his 21st league goal of the campaign in Spurs' 3-0 win over Arsenal on Thursday.

Despite hitting 18 and 15 league goals respectively this season, Manchester United and Spurs strikers Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane are among the highest-profile players to miss out being nominated.

The other players on the eight-man shortlist are City defender Joao Cancelo, Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka, Southampton captain James Ward-Prowse, and West Ham's Jarrod Bowen.

Bowen is one of just three Premier League players to record double figures for goals and assists this season (both 10, along with Salah and Chelsea's Mason Mount).

Meanwhile, both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are in contention to be named Manager of the Season at the end of another enthralling title race between their teams.

Guardiola has already won the award on three occasions (in 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21), the same amount as Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger. Only Alex Ferguson, with 11, has won it more often.

Klopp won the award when he led Liverpool to their first Premier League title in 2019-20, while the other three nominees all manage sides currently in the bottom half of the table.

Brentford's Thomas Frank is among them after leading the Bees to safety in their first top-flight season since 1946-47, as is Patrick Viera after an impressive first campaign with Crystal Palace.

Newcastle United's Eddie Howe is the final boss on the five-man shortlist, after the Magpies became the first side to go winless through their first 14 games in a Premier League campaign and avoid relegation (three had done so and gone down - Swindon Town in 1993-94, QPR in 2012-13, and Sheffield United in 2020-21).

Public votes will contribute towards deciding the winner of each award, with Premier League club captains also getting a vote on the players' award and a "panel of football experts" helping to choose the winning manager.

Pep Guardiola labelled Kevin De Bruyne Manchester City's "key man" after the midfielder scored four in a 5-1 thrashing of Wolves, while he expressed his excitement to manage Erling Haaland next season.

City ran riot at Molineux to restore their three-point lead over Liverpool at the Premier League summit, and now need just four points from their final two games to win a second consecutive league title.

De Bruyne became the fourth different player to score four goals for City in a Premier League match (after Edin Dzeko, Gabriel Jesus, and Sergio Aguero – who did so on three occasions), as City bolstered their goal difference, which could yet prove to be crucial in the title race.

City are now unbeaten in 10 Premier League games (eight wins, two draws), and have become the first team in English top-flight history to win five consecutive games by a margin of three or more goals.

Guardiola's men also became the first team to have five or more shots on target while scoring each in a Premier League game since Liverpool in December 2019 (a 5-2 win against Everton), thanks in large part to De Bruyne's incredible display of finishing.

Speaking to Sky Sports after the win, Guardiola hailed the midfielder as "incredible" after he reached 19 goals for the season in all competitions, saying he had been City's most important player in the run-in.

"The way he's playing in the last two or three months, especially in the Premier League, has been outstanding. In the Champions League as well," he said. "He has been our key man in the last part of the season. 

"It's not just what he creates and the goals and everything, I'm happy because he always had a sense for the assists and was so generous, always thinking what's best for the team.

"But we always tried to push him, [saying] 'you have to win games, you have to score goals', and this year I think is his most prolific season in this sense."

City were widely criticised after falling to a 6-5 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals last week, but responded with consecutive thrashings of Newcastle United and Wolves.

Guardiola was keen to praise his team's character after they produced a dominant performance on their first away trip since Madrid.

"Did you have any doubts after what these guys have done in the last five years? They have personality, they have character, they have everything," he added. 

"We were in control, we started really well, scored a goal, and one moment where we didn't defend the transition properly we conceded a goal [Leander Dendoncker's equaliser]. After, we found the goal quick and it helped us a lot."

Although City have already hit 94 Premier League goals this season, their attack will be further bolstered after the announcement that Borussia Dortmund striker Haaland has agreed a move to the Etihad Stadium.

Guardiola said he was excited to work with the Norway star, who has hit 85 goals in all competitions since joining Dortmund in January 2020, and believes the 21-year-old will have no problem adapting in England.

"It's a decision for the club to make a good signing for the future, he'll come for many, many years, hopefully. I'm pretty sure he'll adapt perfectly to our team, but it will be next season," he added on Haaland.

"I'm excited in my job and of course, I like to work with good players, because the players make you a good manager. 

"Of course, he's an incredible young talent with a perfect age, and I'm pretty sure we're going to help him settle as quickly as possible."

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