As his proud father, Alfie, watched on, Erling Haaland ended yet again as Manchester City’s hero. His double claimed victory against Brighton and, before the clocks go back, he has a staggering 17 Premier League goals.
The Norwegian’s count is 22 in all competitions. The latest plunder consisted of a sweet route-one strike and a penalty that was given following a lengthy VAR review of a foul on Bernardo Silva.
Of his star man, Pep Guardiola said: “Obviously the numbers are incredible and there’s no doubt about his quality. He is so ambitious and he helped us win the game.
“This was a really tough game, one of the toughest but I can’t complain about my team. Brighton played man to man and it’s not really easy, with the ball they are really, really good. I am so satisfied as this was tricky, they impose a game we are not used to. When we allowed them to play they have a process [in the build-up] that is outstanding – they make an extra pass, it is not arrive and cross. I like the way they play – to have the ball.”
Guardiola’s observations were correct: Roberto De Zerbi’s team showed courage and a high collective talent. Their problem was this – Guardiola and his City players ooze these characteristics.
Haaland’s opener was refreshing as it derived from a long-ball ploy that is supposedly anathema for Guardiola’s pass-and-move masters. Ederson provided a supreme assist, the goalkeeper’s flighted 50-yard clearance bounced once in Brighton’s half before Haaland chested on, rammed aside Adam Webster, and, with Robert Sánchez stranded, had his right boot in execution mode.
The second came when the referee, Craig Pawson, overturned his initial no-penalty decision about two minutes later as play continued after the incident. Silva had gone for the ball and Lewis Dunk stuck out a foot and connected with the midfielder’s leg. Haaland coolly beat Sánchez with the penalty. Of the prolonged VAR episode, De Zerbi said: “They can do it but not after five minutes like they did.”
Haaland might have claimed his own spot-kick earlier in the first half so a question when the teams changed ends was whether he might grab a fourth home hat-trick of this astonishing season in City colours.
At 2-0 Brighton could tell themselves they still had a sniff but City were ahead without ever going through all those well-grooved gears that obliterate so many opponents. When Kevin De Bruyne punched a hole in the Seagulls and teed up Riyad Mahrez 3-0 seemed inevitable. But the Algerian blazed straight at Sánchez and, moments later, Brighton struck. Manuel Akanji was robbed by Leandro Trossard who swapped passes with Solly March and Trossard’s 20-yard finish squeezed in at Ederson’s near post, the goalkeeper at fault.
This had Guardiola turning in disgust and those in orange rallied further. Tariq Lamptey, a substitute, dinked the ball in and Trossard again beat Akanji but his header missed. Mahrez, De Bruyne and Haaland all probed yet City were far from their swashbuckling best. Brighton were proving a serious foe and the champions were in a contest. Trossard was a standout performer whose next act featured a chip towards Danny Welbeck, and when play moved down the other end Pascal Gross’s scythe of Rodri illustrated their edge.
Phil Foden was brought on – always a tell of Guardiola’s concern when a rested big gun is sent for – with Mahrez the fall guy for his miss. City needed the cushion of a third to ensure they got back to winning ways after last Sunday’s defeat by Liverpool. It was a struggle A Haaland dance-and-shot claimed a corner rather than the desired outcome. but Silva wandered along the left, rolled the ball over and De Bruyne struck majestically from 25-yards: game over.
Both managers were enthused. “Kevin scored a goal that was magnificent but we would fight to the end to avoid the draw or defeat but sometimes it is important to understand the game we have to play,” said Guardiola.
De Zerbi said: “Kevin De Bruyne’s goal was amazing, it closed the match. In the second half we played really well – much more energy. I told my players at half-time I wanted them to be more confident in themselves. Without the ball in the first half we were good but with the ball we could be better.”
Brighton could be proud but City are too: having to scrap all afternoon and emerge on top.