De Bruyne, the assist king with the Ballon d'Or in sight

FILE - This is a Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018 file photo of Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne in action during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Watford at Etihad stadium, in Manchester, England. Kevin De Bruyne is in such good form this season that Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola believes the midfielder could become the world player of the year. It is quite a comment from Guardiola, who usually dismisses any comparisons with Lionel Messi and has previously said De Bruyne is on a separate table to the Barcelona star. Guardiola says De Bruyne has to capture the Champions League to win the Ballon d’Or. City plays Basel in the first leg of the last 16 on Tuesday Feb. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira, File)

MANCHESTER, England — For Kevin De Bruyne, it was perhaps the ultimate compliment.

Following another midfield masterclass from the Belgian, Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola was asked if De Bruyne had elevated himself to the level of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — and could even break their decade-long stranglehold on the Ballon d'Or.

Guardiola usually dismisses any comparisons with Messi, a player he rates as the "best in history" after having managed the Argentine from 2008-12 during Barcelona's trophy-laden golden era. He said last season that Messi "is on a table on his own" and De Bruyne could sit by the "table beside."

It seems like things have changed.

"No doubt," Guardiola said about De Bruyne being ready to supplant Messi and Ronaldo as the world's best player.

"He is not (just doing it in) one game," he said. "It's the whole season, every three days playing that way. Every three days."

Guardiola had just seen De Bruyne orchestrate City's 5-1 win over Leicester in the Premier League on Saturday, setting up three goals via a combination of teasing crosses and precision through-balls. Since the start of the 2012-13 season, no player in Europe's top five leagues has more assists than De Bruyne with his 77.

He is a strong favorite to become England's player of the year for 2017-18 — only Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah is a genuine rival for the prize — but the Ballon d'Or is on another level. Messi and Ronaldo, the current holder, have won it every year since 2008.

Ahead of the resumption of City's Champions League campaign this week, Guardiola reckons De Bruyne needs to be successful in Europe's top competition to be a contender.

"He knows, and everyone knows, to be there you have to win titles — and titles and titles, especially one," Guardiola said, referring to the Champions League. "But the way he's played, it's difficult to find one (better) in Europe."

This could be City's year, too.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are usually the two favorites to win the Champions League but City and Paris Saint-Germain — clubs backed by wealth from the oil-rich Middle East — look ready to usher in a new era. There's a realistic chance the two Spanish clubs might not even make it out of the last 16, with struggling Madrid taking on PSG and Barcelona meeting Chelsea over two legs.

For City, the opportunity is there — if not to win it but at least to reach the final for the first time. The team's previous best run was to the semifinals in 2016.

Basel is the first opponent in the knockout stage, with the first leg of the last-16 series in Switzerland on Tuesday. With De Bruyne in such scintillating form, City should not be troubled.

Such was his quality on Saturday that even Sergio Aguero, a scorer of four goals against Leicester, threatened to be overshadowed.

"I am very lucky because most of the goals come from his assists — I just have to hit the ball," said Aguero, who has 28 goals in all competitions this season. "He is a great player and any team in the world would love to have him."

De Bruyne has moved to another level since being repositioned by Guardiola this season. The Belgian is playing in a deeper central-midfield role, where he can influence games more with his passing, energy and reading of the game.

But he pops up everywhere — on the wings, in support of the striker, on set pieces — and possibly has the best delivery ever seen in the Premier League. So far, he has scored seven goals and set up 16 more in the Premier League, helping City into a 16-point lead. The club is also in both domestic cup competitions.

"I am very pleased with the way everything is going for me," De Bruyne said. "I am playing this way because the team is playing this way. It makes it easier for me, it makes it easier for them.

"At the end, if you get an individual honor, it is beautiful," he said.

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More AP Champions League coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/ChampionsLeague

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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