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Man City Flexes Champions League Muscles on Haaland’s Record Night
By Jonathan Wilson,
The Premier League title holders displayed their full potential with a 7–0 win over RB Leipzig in the round of 16 second leg.
What started as a potentially awkward night for Manchester City soon became nothing more than a matter of ticking off the records. RB Leipzig had lost only two of its previous 24 games but it was blown away by City, which surged into the quarterfinals of the Champions League, 8–1 on aggregate, after a 7–0 second-leg win.
Erling Haaland was the obvious star, joining Lionel Messi and Luiz Adriano as the only players to have scored five goals in a single Champions League game , despite being taken off in the 63rd minute. It was his fifth hat-trick at the Etihad this season and took him to 39 goals for the season, breaking the City record set by Tommy Johnson in 1928-29; there are still almost three months and a potential 19 games remaining.
But this was an exceptional team performance as it equaled its record Champions league win. Kevin De Bruyne, after being criticized by Pep Guardiola on Monday, was at his sharpest again, as was John Stones, doing the job Guardiola loves his fullbacks to do, drifting from fullback into the center of midfield.
The game was effectively won by two goals in 78 seconds midway through the first half, neither of them without controversy. Benjamin Henrichs had got away with a fairly blatant handball in injury time in the first leg, almost patting the ball away as it flicked off a City head, but this time he was penalized extremely harshly. Perhaps the VAR officials and the Slovenian referee Slavko Zinčić interpreted the law correctly by UEFA’s guidelines, but this was not a penalty that would have been given in the Premier League—and nor, surely, should it be a penalty under any circumstances.
The handball law was introduced to differentiate football from rugby; it is there to stop players cheating by using their hands to gain an advantage. Henrichs had jumped for a cross with Rodri. The Spain midfielder won the header, the ball coming off him and brushing the crook of Henrichs’s elbow. Henrichs was facing away at the time and, although his arm was away from his body, that was an entirely reasonable place for it to be as he steadied himself following the aerial challenge. No City player, nobody in the stadium appealed, and yet after a VAR review the penalty was given. The Premier League has taken a far more reasonable stance on this, but it still feels as though in UEFA competition, the question being asked is not whether a player has tried to gain an advantage dishonestly, but whether VAR can be used to give a penalty. Haaland converted with confidence.
The second goal, scored 19 seconds after Leipzig had kicked off, was far less absurd, but perhaps confirmed Leipzig’s sense that things were not going their way. Haaland pressed the Leipzig keeper Janis Blaswich, forcing him to clear quickly and then seemingly just catching him. It wasn’t the worst foul, but free kicks are often given for that—certainly it was a worse offense than that of Henrichs. As the ball was returned towards the Leipzig area, Haaland headed it down for Kevin De Bruyne and, after his shot had pinged off the crossbar, was there to head in the rebound.
Leipzig’s frustration was compounded as Ederson escaped punishment for a clumsy challenge on Konrad Laimer. It may be that he made contact with the ball, but no player other than a goalkeeper would get away with clattering through an opponent to get there. It was certainly a free kick and a yellow card; it might even have been red, not for the denial of a goalscoring opportunity but for the force and recklessness of the challenge.
None of the three decisions were wrong, but none were clear-cut and all went in City’s favor. Having got the advantage, though, City took full advantage. It had been on top before taking the lead and as Leipzig’s heads went—and Blaswich showed why he is second-choice in goal—City racked the goals up, showcasing its newfound expertise from set plays.
Haaland completed his hat trick just before halftime, Amadou Haidara’s clearance cannoning in off him after Rúben Dias’s initial header had hit the post. İlkay Gündoğan completed a neat team move to break the run of Haaland goals and two further corners led to Haaland’s fourth and fifth goals of the night. De Bruyne made it seven in injury time with a precise finish.
City has been here before. It has rarely had a problem amassing goals against weaker opposition. It has often looked the best side in Europe before unexpectedly losing. It got the breaks here, but this was undeniably impressive.