Haaland proves Man City's Champions League difference-maker

·4-min read

Manchester City bought Erling Haaland to be the difference on nights like this.

In cagey Champions League matches, against Europe's top sides, the striker was the player who could turn possessional dominance into victory.

Yet for 84 frustrating minutes against his former club Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday, Haaland toiled. World-class players – strikers especially – only need a moment, a split-second, however, to do the damage.

And so it proved, when Joao Cancelo lofted in a left-wing cross to the back post that mere mortals could not have reached. But Haaland, now the youngest player in Champions League history to score for and against the same side in the competition, is no mere mortal.

Nico Schlotterbeck had told the press he "knew how to stop Haaland". The centre-back, named on the bench after playing in a 3-0 Bundesliga defeat to RB Leipzig at the weekend, had been on the pitch just six minutes when Haaland somehow met Cancelo's sumptuous outside-of-the-boot delivery and, in mid-air, prodded a finish beyond Alexander Meyer. His 13th goal of the season. It is mid-September.

It completed a four-minute City turnaround, from 1-0 down to 2-1 up – John Stones having cancelled out Jude Bellingham's opener with a rocket from the edge of the area, albeit one Meyer might have done better with.

Not that this was a vintage City display, by any means. Up until Stones' equaliser, they had laboured, failing to test Meyer. Indeed, the loudest the home crowd had been before then was after Haaland had struck the outside of the post from a near-impossible angle with his first true sighting of goal, and prior to that, it was a chorus of "you're just a s*** Bayern Munich" directed at the vociferous visiting fans, who were in great voice throughout.

Bellingham's opener did not come against the run of play, either. City had 64.1 per cent possession in the first half but managed just four attempts. None were on target and three, from Jack Grealish, were easily blocked.

Pep Guardiola cut a frustrated figure, but whatever he said to his side at half-time did not have the desired impact. Dortmund came out of the blocks, Marco Reus slicing just wide before he provided the cross-shot for Bellingham to nod home, becoming the highest-scoring English teenager in the Champions League in the process.

Bellingham scored one of his other three Champions League goals on the last occasion these sides met, in the 2020-21 quarter-finals. Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden scored in a 2-1 win for City, sealing a 4-2 aggregate victory.

Haaland, then in a Dortmund shirt of course, had 25 touches on that occasion. Only one of those came in the box, and he had just one attempt, failing to hit the target with it. He finished with 26 touches before being taken off to a standing ovation this time out, but 14 of those were in BVB's area.

Ilkay Gundogan, another ex-Dortmund star, had suggested in his pre-match press conference that City had to show more patience in regards to getting the ball into their number nine, but there is a fine balance to be struck and it was only when Foden came on – as part of a treble substitution in the wake of Dortmund's goal – that the hosts started to click into gear.

Whereas Grealish looked to chop inside, Foden's directness offered City a different dimension, putting Thomas Meunier on the back foot. Indeed, only a brilliant Mats Hummels intervention prevented Haaland getting on the end of a sharp Foden cross.

And it was getting the ball in sharply that finally set the stage for Haaland to prove the difference, to back up the reason City bought him. For nights like this. So well-shackled by his former club, one quick ball – from a situation where Cancelo had been far too content to play the safe option previously – provided the Norway international with the ammunition.

He does not miss. And for City, it means even on an off-day, they got the job done. Come the season's end, it might just prove to be the factor that ends their hunt for European glory.