Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters
It was the moment when the shattered RB Leipzig players could breathe a sigh of relief. There were 62 minutes on the clock and a bright red No 9 on the Manchester City substitutes board. For the German club, the ordeal was over. Erling Haaland came off.
As City’s wrecking ball departed from a centre-forward with a big smile on his face, there was a slightly reverential applause from all sides, Pep Guardiola joining on the sidelines. Haaland had previously netted four hat-tricks in the City colors in a season in which he has relentlessly smashed records. But five in one game? And a Champions League round of 16 at that?
That was something very special and everyone knew it. When Haaland scored his fifth and City’s sixth goal, stretching out the fingers and thumb of one hand and asking the fans to count them, his father Alfie celebrated wildly in the stands, giving him 39 goals of the season; a new club record – taking him past Tommy Johnson’s 38 in 1928-29.
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What this master class of bullying power, hard running and deadly shooting did was send a message across Europe. Guardiola has come ever closer to the holy grail of a Champions League win with City, one final and one semi-final in the past two seasons. With Haaland now on board, the possibilities are tantalizing, especially with the tournament’s business ending looking so open.
City equaled their record win – the 7-0 win over Schalke in 2019 – as Kevin De Bruyne rolled home an injury-time beauty. De Bruyne was very good on his return to the starting XI but this was an opportunity surpassed by a man.
It was Haaland’s 36thth Appearance for City and the club will play at least 14 more games in all competitions before the end of the season; 19 max as they chase glory – the one they crave – in the Premier League, FA Cup and this competition. God knows what his numbers will be when it’s all over.
One of the things about Haaland is that he’s just having so much fun – look at the goal celebrations, even the grin after he gets close; the same as he watched from the bench here after his retirement and, of course, as he wandered away with the match point. He almost took two home with him.
But it’s the relentlessness that underlies it all, the desire to chase after seemingly lost causes, to get involved and make things happen. Once the opportunity is there, it usually means only one thing. And if not, next time probably will.
Haaland’s second goal was the perfect illustration of his eagerness, athleticism and predatory instincts. He forced a quick clearance from Leipzig goalkeeper Janis Blaswich and when Manuel Akanji fired back from the middle, Haaland turned to nod De Bruyne back. What followed was all about the purity of De Bruyne’s technique, a race in traffic followed by a searing drive coming off the bar. Haaland devoured the rebound.
Haaland’s first penalty had been a controversial one, not that he had time for sympathy after VAR stunned Leipzig by asking referee Slavko Vincic to consult the pitchside monitor. The recordings showed that a Rodri header went into Benjamin Henrichs’ outstretched arm at a corner in the city, although the Leipzig full-back was standing with his back to the ball when he jumped. It was the definition of a letter of the law decision, so hard. Haaland kicked past Blaswich.
Leipzig were almost comically bad from back to front, everything going against them, including that moment in the 34th minute when Ederson left his area and Konrad Laimer conceded, only for Vincic to say no to the foul and an incredulous Timo Book Werner for dissent.
City could have had more in a golden first period, although Jack Grealish tainted his textbook with an attempted dive in the area. Ilkay Gundogan had fired high at the start while Haaland drove on a long ball he had no right to reach for and nearly pushed past Blaswich. With the score at 2-0, Haaland pounded on the near corner only to save the keeper, while Gündogan also extended it after De Bruyne’s quick free-kick.
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Leipzig’s task became impossible after Haaland’s final act of the first half. Rúben Dias’ header from a corner had kissed the inside post and gone over the line, Amadou Haidara tried to turn and clear but he could feel Haaland behind him. City’s number 9 practically tackled the ball. He’ll catch you every step of the way.
Haaland wasn’t full. Far from it. He would benefit from two more corners after the break and hit home two rebounds. Gündogan had scored his fourth straight goal after half-time and drove deep into the far corner to catch the thousand-yard gaze of Leipzig manager Marco Rose, and the ordeal couldn’t end fast enough for the visitors, even after the grace move of Haaland’s substitution.
You can often feel that Guardiola’s Champions League history flashes before everyone’s eyes at City on nights like this – with an emphasis on knockout-round heartbreak – and it literally had the before kick-off Large screen montage including footage of done He looks sad after defeats and comforts broken players. “This season feels a bit different,” was the optimistic message at the end. Haaland wants to do it that way.