Professional predator Erling Haaland heading for 50-goal season
Some records last forever. Some last a mere 94 years. Since Tommy Johnson scored 38 times in 1928-29, no one in a Manchester City shirt had matched him. Until, with up to 19 games and perhaps almost three months of his season remaining, Erling Haaland surged past him in an extraordinary display of goalscoring. The Champions League is supposed to be the hardest competition in the sport but Haaland had five goals inside an hour of a knockout tie against the club who were semi-finalists two seasons ago.
Records are tumbling, and not merely City’s club best that was set before the Wall Street Crash and which lasted for half a century after Johnson’s death. The most by a City player in a Champions League campaign was Riyad Mahrez’s seven last year. Haaland cruised past that to become the top scorer in this season’s competition. He became the quickest player to 30 Champions League goals, in just 25 games and at a mere 22 years, and, with 33, is already well on his way to 40. After four previous hat-tricks in his brief City career, he scored five. Only Luiz Adriano and Lionel Messi had previously done that in a Champions League game and, had Pep Guardiola not removed him for the final half-hour, the competition’s maiden double hat-trick seemed on the cards.
Leipzig were that poor, that porous. They had the World Cup’s outstanding centre-back, in Josko Gvardiol, but be could be forgiven for wanting superior teammates as they were torn to shreds. Leipzig had conceded six at the Etihad Stadium last season but at least Christopher Nkunku scored a hat-trick for them that day. Minus the injured Nkunku, they had no such threat and conceded seven. This felt an embarrassment for a team who beat Real Madrid in the group stages.
For City, meanwhile, it was the most emphatic of ways to book their place in the quarter-finals for the sixth successive year. Long before Kevin de Bruyne curled in the seventh, a stunning long-range shot with the last kick of the game, their supporters had chorused about being “the best team in the world”. The eventual verdict may come in Istanbul in June; for now, however, they may have to settle for being a side most would hope to avoid in Friday’s draw.
By the time Haaland departed, to a standing ovation, it felt incongruous to think that he had only scored three goals in his previous nine appearances. He had matched that by half-time. Rampaging and dominant, this was his finest City performance. He was too quick, too big, too relentless and too accurate for Leipzig. With 11 goals against them, they are officially his favourite opponents and certainly Marco Rose can testify that forewarned is not forearmed. The Leipzig manager was in charge of Dortmund last season when Haaland scored 29 times. The Norwegian’s appetite for goals may be still greater. He decided this tie with two in as many minutes and then took his tally to five in 35.
If Leipzig merit any sympathy amid their haplessness, it is because a couple of telling decisions went against them. At 2-0, Ederson came out of his box and fouled Konrad Laimer, but it went unpunished. Before then, the deadlock had been broken when City got the sort of penalty that no one appealed for but which can be the product of technology; there was bemusement when referee Slavko Vincic was sent to the pitchside monitor, and some at his eventual decision. Rodri had headed the ball against Benjamin Henrichs’ arm amid a bout of penalty-box pinball. Caring little for the rationale, Haaland drilled in the penalty.
If Leipzig were rattled, so was their bar for Haaland’s second. After the Norwegian headed the ball back to him, De Bruyne thundered a ferocious strike from 20 yards against the woodwork. The rebound fell for the advancing Haaland to head in. He had started and finished the move, forcing goalkeeper Janis Blaswich into a hurried clearance by closing down,
His third came in fortunate fashion. Ruben Dias met Jack Grealish’s corner with a header that hit the post and rolled along the line. As Amadou Haidara tried to clear, he instead cannoned the ball into Haaland and thus into the net.
His fourth was hooked in at the second attempt after Blaswich saved his initial header following another corner, his fifth a rebound after the unconvincing keeper met Manuel Akanji’s shot with a limp parry. That he could have had two more before half-time was a sign of how irresistible he was.
The other goal came from a German. Even then, Leipzig could take no pleasure from that. Ilkay Gundogan had been elusive skying an early half-volley and drawing a save from Blaswich before he drilled in a low shot from the edge of the box. The assist went to Grealish but even then, Haaland had played his part, finding the £100 million man, playing a part in the build-up. Guardiola may enjoy that more than any of his five goals. The professional predator in Haaland is less likely to. And, with 39 to his name, he can start to envisage a 50-goal season.