Man City 7-0 Leipzig (8-1 on aggregate) (Haaland P 22′, 24, 45+2, 53, 57, Gundogan 49′, De Bruyne 90+2)
There was a period of 10 minutes when you wondered if RB Leipzig might have played this right, a contest of highwire passing out from the back that would make a Champions League tie a glorious, chaotic coin toss.
There were 10 more minutes when you wondered whether Manchester City might pay for all the missed chances they were accumulating; we have seen that happen before in this stadium, to this team, in this competition. And then Erling Haaland happened, and you laugh in wonder at how City ever have to worry about anything at all.
And then, for five minutes after he had scored his fifth goal, a very different game within a game. Every time City took the ball into RB Leipzig’s third of the pitch, all eyes in the Etihad looked into the penalty area to see where their magnificent RoboBeast was standing and, more importantly, where he was intending to go next.
Pep Guardiola opted for mercy and called on Julian Alvarez. Good luck, young man. Play well and you might knock him out the tea…no.
Sit down for this, in case it makes you topple over with laughter: the moments on Tuesday night when Haaland demonstrated his domineering, bullying, monstrous best came before, after and in between his five goals: the surging runs beyond three defenders, the headers won, the pressure applied. That is the magnitude of what we are dealing with here, a goalscorer of such freakishness that everything else looks less than ordinary.
But more than any of that, it is Haaland’s nose for danger that is better than anyone else in the game. It is often said that Haaland only scores goals, and he is certainly one-dimensional by Manchester City standards. But if you think that being in the right place at the right time when the ball rebounds, bounces, or bobbles to you involves any more than 10 per cent good fortune, think on.
Watch him when he’s barely involved in the game; he’s always tracking the movement of the ball, his teammates and the defenders tasked with stopping him, like a CCTV system flashing between different cameras. He does it over and over and over again, for a reason. He knows where to be and when. Don’t worry too much about the rest. The height and power and pace and skill and wires and cogs will see to that.
The sheer volume of goals is obscene. He is now inside the top 25 goalscorers in the history of the European Cup and he has played 25 matches (he has 68 more matches to score the one goal required to move ahead of Fernando Morientes, with whom he shares 23rd place).
Haaland has 39 for the season, which is a) completely and utterly ridiculous, and b) more than any Manchester City player has ever scored in a season before. Haaland could still play another 19 matches before the curtain falls on one of the most extraordinary individual campaigns we will ever witness.
We should also say this, because it will be lost in the Haaland hoopla: the team was magnificent. Kevin De Bruyne, fresh from his stern advice from Guardiola, popped up in four positions and excelled in each.
Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish, the nominal wingers, stretched the game wide to create Haaland’s space.
Over the last few weeks, Rodri’s command of his fiefdom has clicked up another notch. Haaland may be a wrecking ball, but the midfielders build the tower for him to knock down. If De Bruyne was a little stung by perceived criticism, curling in a seventh goal is a beautiful response.
Watching Manchester City in the Champions League knockout stages is a strange pursuit. You arrive at the stadium utterly convinced that they will be victorious – look at the resources, look at the team, look at the manager. And that subconscious dismissal of any other lasts until City eventually tumble out; which they always do eventually. Maybe this season will be different, we always say. And maybe this year will be – perhaps chasing a title will keep them ruthless in Europe.
At home, they are certainly peerless. Guardiola’s team have now won 22 of their last 24 home matches in the Champions League and they drew the other two. That defeat, against Lyon in 2018, saw Mikel Arteta on the touchline in Pep Guardiola’s place. Plenty has happened to that pair since; colleagues have become rivals. For all City’s ghosts that lurk in the Champions League, any opposition that fancies this trip is brave or foolish.
And when they do arrive, they will have to try and achieve the unthinkable. Stop the tide from coming in. Reverse the effects of gravity. Build a skyscraper out of dry sand. Stop Erling Haaland from getting to the ball in the six-yard box. Impossible is nothing, the advertisers like to tell you. Ask Marco Rose for his thoughts on that pithy slogan.