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Deadly Haaland makes difference and shows his worth to Manchester City | Barney Ronay


Well, that’s over anyway. How to describe the emotional energy of this game? For long periods this felt like all the things that football matches usually aren’t. Creepy. Awkward. Uptight. Even as an apparently endless second half stretched out there was a sense around the crowd of some necessary duty being discharged, football reimagined as a trip to Dignitas or a no-fault divorce.

There were still moments of drama. Tottenham played really well, and might have drawn the game if they had a sharper edge. The idea that Spurs would ever “chose” to lose to Manchester City’s annihilating title-bulldozer was always bizarre. When did choice ever have anything to do with this? But it was still a strange occasion, as though the banter-buildup, the endless chat about not helping Arsenal to win a league title had undermined the usual dynamic.

Not that it was any less absorbing, with the fate of at least four teams in the balance here. The crowd rippled. Nobody really knew how to feel. It felt at times like one of those deeply unnerving Quentin Tarantino sequences where everybody talks nicely about things like cars or hamburgers, while beneath the table weird things are happening, pistols cocked, some wild coup de théâtre played out.

That feeling that only really shifted in stoppage time, as Erling Haaland scored his own second goal in this 2-0 win, in the process taking City to within leaning distance of a fourth straight title.

Haaland’s penalty had a brutal kind of beauty about it, his foot making a deep thumping sound as it struck the ball, sending it zinging into the top corner, breaking the spell like a slap around the chops.

And for all the oddity off-stage this was a great game for Haaland, and a significant one too. His first goal on 51 minutes was his 11th touch, first shot, first real moment close to goal. It was a tap-in from four yards out. It was also a lovely goal because he made the right movements, read the angles, found the space.

It was the goal of a killer, and a killer is what you need when this kind of game is stating to twang at the nerves. Haaland is often criticised for not carrying his weight, for being a kind of regimental mascot, a ceremonial Nordic hatstand, when City win via the familiar nine-man outfield swarm.

Here he did exactly what he was hired for, making the difference in a game they had to win.

Oddly enough it was also a kind of first, the first time he has scored the key opening goal in a season-ending must-win. His celebration was a different, a little more wild and unbound. This high-wire game might just turn out to be the best moment of his season.

Guglielmo Vicario denies Phil Foden with an acrobatic save from close range. Photograph: Sportimage Ltd/David Klein/Sportimage

The stadium had been unusually quiet at the start. Spurs lined up in a strange, double false nine formation, with Pape Sarr and James Maddison thrusting vaguely from central spaces. It asked weird questions, offered extreme width. And for long periods the entire game was played out in a narrow rectangle, either side of the halfway line.

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There were strange empty spaces all over the pitch. Ten minutes ticked down, then 20. Three times Kyle Walker went galloping of in to the vast open space on the Spurs left flank, strange moments when it felt like the game must surely stop, this was some kind of glitch or oversight. Something extraordinary happened, Guglielmo Vicario producing the most astonishing right-handed save, star-fishing himself, blocking Phil Foden’s point-blank shot.

Five minutes of the second half came and went and still the game was even, City a little ragged at times. At times it felt like tension being created artificially, like a car chase plonked into an action adventure film, ersatz jeopardy. Erm, we feel like the timeline goes slack here. We know what the characters want, where they’re going. We need bumps in the road. A shootout in a carpark.

At other times, well, maybe this was real. Maybe this was happening. Maybe something astonishing was about to … oh. No it wasn’t. Foden produced a lovely thrust down the left, crossed, Kevin De Bruyne fetched it back again, the low pass into the six yard box was perfectly timed. Haaland made the perfect run.

And with that the incredible neck-and‑neck title race that somehow doesn’t really feel like an incredible neck-and-neck title race headed into its final weekend. This was City’s eighth straight league win since the draw with Arsenal, with an aggregate score of 30-5, a run that has also coincided with going out of Europe. Can you imagine how brutally, how righteously Pep Guardiola would have destroyed the Premier League had the Uefa ban stood? Imagine the endless punitive annihilations given an entire week every week, to drill this team.

And this was in its own way the real irony of this occasion. There are no issues with robustness in this league. Nobody ever tries less than their best. The issue for the Premier League is housing a champion team that is quite so far ahead, so much better than the team in fifth, able to dominate so completely over a seven-year spell. For all the oddity, the banter-tension, there was a sense here of a serial champion simply stretching away in the straight.



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