MANCHESTER (AFP) - Kevin De Bruyne's timely return to action for Manchester City is a major boost for Pep Guardiola as his team brace for a punishing programme over the festive period.
The Belgium international, who has been limited to just 96 minutes of league football so far this season, started the midweek League Cup quarter-final against Leicester, which City won on penalties.
He completed 70 minutes in only his second outing since injuring his knee for a second time this season in a League Cup tie with Fulham on Nov 1 and scored City's goal in the 1-1 draw.
"I've been out so long, so to play 70 minutes is a really good sign for me personally," he told the club's official website. "I feel a little bit stiff but I'm happy to contribute again."
City's home match in the Premier League against Crystal Palace on Saturday (Dec 22) is the first game in a run of six matches in 16 days in three competitions so Guardiola will be desperate to have all his major stars at his disposal.
In more good news for the City boss, Sergio Aguero also returned to action in midweek after being out since late November with a groin problem.
But it is the pending return to full fitness of De Bruyne that will most excite City supporters, even if a record of 14 wins, two draws and a loss from their opening 17 league games hardly suggests the team has struggled in his absence.
De Bruyne put in a huge effort last season for his club, featuring in 52 league and cup games for City and was named their player of the season.
He also faced a punishing international schedule, which culminated in Belgium finishing third at the World Cup - the sheer number of games for club and country sparked concerns from Guardiola that De Bruyne had not had enough rest during the summer.
When he picked up a ligament injury in his right knee in training just one game into the new season such fears seemed well-founded - he then hurt his left knee against Fulham soon after returning to action.
The player, however, believes he was the victim of bad luck.
"I played the most of anyone last year - in the whole world," said De Bruyne. "And I played the World Cup without a problem.
"I think the most important thing is having a summer break - if you have that you can feel OK but there is always a time in someone's career where you feel a bit less.
"But I felt all right, it was just a shame that when I came back after one week I was out for two-and-a-half months. I was happy to come back and worked really hard but after three games it happened again."
The 27-year-old is upbeat despite his disrupted season and is preparing to help second-placed City in their title defence.
"There's nothing I can do - it was two accidents," he said. "I'm happy with my body because I know I have no problems with muscles. They were both just accidents, the second time also. I felt my knee and it pops, so you just work hard and try to be back as soon as possible."