As the players left the pitch at half-time, the Etihad Stadium’s own giant screen began to repeat in slow-motion close-up the moment that had just passed, Manchester City’s third goal that would eventually become a 7-0 (seven ) victory.
There was something ridiculously beautiful about the imagery, the basic human design, the cold cold beauty of the sky blue shirts, the snowflakes falling in slow fat perfect flakes, Erling Haaland rolling past the faces in the crowd and gliding in one Movement in the perfect Olympic knee sled, a footballer who expresses power, sharpness and safety clearer than anyone else.
He was, frankly, stunning here; unstoppable in a way that felt unlike any previous version of unstoppable, SUI generic in its oversized strengths. Haaland had just completed the perfect hat-trick, even though the ball was poked in his leg with his right foot and peed back over the goal line.
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Doesn’t matter. We have more where that came from. When he left the field after 63 minutes, Haaland had fired eight shots, all eight on target, scored five goals and completed eleven passes. Here’s a footballer who seems to reduce football to its basic unit, a perfect piece of math, a prolific superconductor.
When Haaland scored his fifth goal in the 57th minute, he wasn’t really celebrating, just laughing, a man drowning in honey. It’s easy to forget just by looking at his size, strength and confidence, that he’s still a slightly goofy 22-year-old, that he’s never won a major trophy, travels with his dad, has only ever known the pressure be prepared for these moments. It’s one of football’s indestructible qualities that even in the midst of this spectacle of power football, power play and Champions League muscle, it can maintain that innocence and fun.
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And so City rumbles on into the quarterfinals. There was always the idea that Haaland would deliver “that little something extra” in those one-off, high-stakes games. Well, then there is some progress. In reality, this notion always seemed a bit far-fetched. He’s not a supersub. City’s entire system is still being recalibrated to suit his abilities, with all the aforementioned complications that entails. This was the challenge on both sides to turn the world’s greatest one-liner into a novel.
With that in mind, City’s second goal was significant for other reasons. Thanks to a penalty that was not only soft, but triple-stitched, they were 1-0 ahead. This was performative video refereeing, the kind of handball that can only be avoided by tying both arms together behind the back with string, or possibly sawing off the shoulders. Haaland buried the kick when it started to snow.
The second, right after, included a post from Kevin De Bruyne, which might be just as important from here. Haaland did it, pushing hard and then heading the loose ball into the path of De Bruyne, who slammed a wonderful left-footed shot to the underside of the bar. Haaland was there for the third time in five seconds to put it back on the net.
De Bruyne would add the seventh on death, a ridiculously brilliant long range air burner. He’s just so important in this team, a counterpoint to machine-drilled perfectionism, a footballer with his own deeper levels and gears and the perfect complement to Haaland’s edge. Here he looked sharp. The patterns were good. And at the end of a night like this, there are two questions to ask.
First, is it ok? This wasn’t just a walk. It wasn’t any kind of competition. With 40 minutes remaining, RB Leipzig was like a zombie, heads hanging, shoulders slumped and completely smashed. Leipzig is third in the Bundesliga, not far from the top. These are both project teams, one a buy-low soft drink marketing tool, the other a large-scale memorial to nation-state ambitions. But that was a mismatch.
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City moved Leipzig around, stretching the lines at will and making it all so easy, dissecting his opponents like a practice corpse on the lab stretcher. And second, how far can City go with that now? It was by no means a one-man show. City countered fiercely and resisted RB Leipzig’s physicality throughout the pitch. Bernardo Silva was regularly brilliant, not really a defensive or attacking midfielder these days, just a versatile, roving goblin of skill.
Haaland looked different too. There’s been talk of City as a more tenacious machine, less fun, less sparkly and light-footed. And the Haaland that came to City was basically lethal when it came to being lethal, even a little strange in an age of increasingly complete and adaptable footballers. Haaland is not fluent or “polyvalent”. He has no strengths and weaknesses: he has super strengths and he doesn’t care.
But there was much more than goals here, like against Arsenal in the Emirates, a more rounded contribution, greater energy from the front. The city develops in real time and becomes more and more complete. The real test will come against one of Europe’s elite, a question that has not yet been asked, but Europe’s elite is an ever-shrinking circle.
It will be fascinating to watch when it happens. But that was as close as City has come to marrying that sense of control and high technique with a razor-sharp edge. It was delicate, brutally unstoppable.