ETIHAD STADIUM, MANCHESTER — Pace, power and brute physicality, storming into the wide-open opposition half after collecting a pass from the creator-in-chief with five minutes on the clock, a defender to beat and a game to win.
It’s a scenario Brandon Aiyuk or Rashee Rice would relish in Super Bowl LVIII this Sunday, but it was also the situation Erling Haaland made the most of this weekend to put a miserable couple of months to bed.
Manchester City’s star striker stepped up in their time of need with two goals inside the final 20 minutes to sink Everton in the Premier League on Saturday. The result means Pep Guardiola’s champions remain two points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand.
The goals were Haaland’s first since November, after which a bone stress injury in his foot interrupted the Norway superstar’s season. He is still the top scorer in England’s top division with 16.
They were strikes that had a malevolent streak. First, in the way Haaland detonated a snapshot with his supposedly weaker right foot after Everton failed to deal with Julian Alvarez’s corner. Then there was the goal to bring the house down at the Etihad Stadium.
MORE: How Man City wore down Everton’s resistance through Haaland’s power
Everton’s young centre-back Jarrad Branthwaite had added to his increasingly accomplished body of work with a fine display in and out of possession. When Kevin De Bruyne released Haaland, he was exposed as the last remaining defensive presence. Haaland unceremoniously barged past him, depositing the 21-year-old onto the turf before slotting home.
“Almost, yeah,” said City defender Nathan Ake when reflecting upon whether Haaland was impossible to stop in such situations. “He’s so quick, he’s fast, he’s strong. In those spaces, one versus one, it’s very difficult.
“Most of the time, teams sit a little bit deeper so there’s not much space for him to go, but I think sometimes we can use him on the counter-attack. When he’s got space like this, it’s difficult to stop him.
“It’s great to have him back, especially for these moments. Out of nothing, he can score. The people coming off the bench, I think they all did well and made a big difference to open the game up a bit.”
12 – Kevin De Bruyne has provided 12 assists for Erling Haaland in all competitions, the most of any Premier League player for a specific teammate since the start of last season. Service. pic.twitter.com/KPSz4z2NFS
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 10, 2024
One of those was the masterful De Bruyne, whose minutes are being carefully managed after hamstring surgery. The 32-year-old has now contributed an assist in all four of the Premier League games he has appeared in since his return.
City have an enviable array of attacking quality but the fact they have managed to stay firmly in contention across the three competitions they won last year while missing De Bruyne and Haaland for chunks of the campaign feels ominous for their rivals.
“We know how good both of them are and, again, when [De Bruyne] comes on, straight away he looks for him, they look for each other,” Ake said. “It’s massive that they’re both fit, both ready to go.
“I think everyone expected to give [De Bruyne] a bit of time but straight away he’s fit. He’s been training really well in the gym, he’s working really hard and you could see on the pitch straight away he was ready to go.”
Speaking to TNT Sports, Haaland conceded there is just something a bit different to his link-up with De Bruyne, like a hotshot quarterback and wide receiver in perfect harmony.
“I try to do the same [with other players] but with him it’s a bit more like I know I’m going to get it perfect,” he said.
“This [the second goal] is a bit different to a lot of other goals where I need to take touches. I know when the ball is going to come. You can see in the replay, I don’t even look at the ball for two seconds because I’m just focusing on running towards the goal.
“I think maybe that’s a small difference. Nothing bad about the others but it’s a small difference that you know the ball is going to come.”
YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS 💙💙 pic.twitter.com/EGNlXlRcCh
— Erling Haaland (@ErlingHaaland) February 10, 2024
City have now won 10 successive games in all competitions, a run for which Guardiola can take plenty of credit after finding various tactical solutions while navigating form and fitness problems for some key men.
However, this Super Bowl weekend, the playbook appeared to land on the wrong page against Everton. Guardiola fiddled with his defensive shape in possession, using Manuel Akanji to supplement the midfield from left-back and then from centre-back, taking on the duties John Stones performed so brilliantly last season.
Stones himself resided on the right-hand side of defence, with the in-form Phil Foden marooned higher up that flank as Alvarez and Matheus Nunes blew hot and cold in central areas.
Then De Bruyne entered the fray and the mood changed, for Haaland and everyone else inside the stadium. Sometimes, when the best-laid plans falter, you need your MVPs to step up. Handily for Guardiola, he has two of the very best.
“These guys help us win games,” the City boss said. “Without them, maybe we could not. They have the ability in the final third to create something that is not in the books, not in genius managers.”
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