Sometime shortly after midday Central European Time on Friday, a fearful groan may well be heard at Uefa headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.
It will come from whoever is representing the unlucky club that ends up with their name paired next to Manchester City in the draw for the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
City have reached the last eight of club football’s most prestigious competition for the sixth year running, but seldom have they done so while setting down such a powerful message that in the competition that has been tantalisingly unwinnable so far, they really are ready to break their glass ceiling.
The 7-0 beating of RB Leipzig on Tuesday made an even more startling statement to rivals than the same scoreline they racked up against Schalke 04 to reach the quarter-finals in 2019. This time there is a sensational newcomer driving the push for Champions League glory and openly taking leadership of City’s highest ambitions.
Erling Haaland’s five goals matched the record for an individual in a single match in the competition, and he fired a clear warning that he wants more and more goals on these sorts of nights. When Haaland was substituted a little after an hour into the rout, he told City manager Pep Guardiola he had wanted to stay on to register a double hat-trick.
He already had what is known as a ‘perfect hat-trick’: a goal with the left foot, a goal with the right, a headed goal. Another header, like the one that put City 2-0 up, Haaland reacting sharpest when a Kevin de Bruyne shot came back off the Leipzig crossbar, would have made two of them.
The result resonated across Europe. “Who can stop the monster Haaland?” asked Wednesday’s edition of Portuguese sports newspaper Record. Benfica, who strolled into the quarter-finals with a 7-1 aggregate win over Brugge, will be hoping they are not asked to put their minds to that task.
Die Welt, the German daily, contemplated what it called “The Haaland Paradox”, the relatively low ratio of the Norwegian superstar’s touches of the ball – in a possession-based City side — to his extraordinary number of goals – 39 already in his 36 matches for the club he joined last July.
Bayern Munich, who have won eight out of eight Champions League matches this season, will be very pleased if they can avoid confronting that paradox in the next two months.
Leipzig, who had alarmed City with their second half display in the first leg, a 1-1 draw, were utterly steamrollered. If there must be some sympathy with their complaints about the penalty award that gave Haaland his first goal, by the time he had his third they were being thoroughly pulled apart, the confidence of the coveted young centre-back Josko Gvardiol visibly draining away. “We were eaten up out there,” said Benjamin Henrichs, the full-back. “It was brutal.”
Haaland described the City performance as “a kind of statement,” and explicitly took on responsibility for targeting the trophy that has eluded City, who lost in the semi-finals to Real Madrid last season, and were beaten by Chelsea in the final 12 months earlier.
“Of course the club want to win the Champions League,” he told CBS. “They have won the Premier League four times out of the last five, so they didn’t bring me in to win the Premier League. They know how to win that. You can read between the lines – I’m here to try to help the club develop more, to try to win the Champions League for the first time.”
“Having a weapon like Erling in this competition is important,” added Guardiola, “He’s an incredible guy with a huge talent, power and mentality, a serial winner.”
There was praise, too, for De Bruyne, who Guardiola had been lightly critical of in the lead-up to Leipzig’s visit for not focusing on the “simple” parts of his game. “Unstoppable,” said Guardiola of the midfielder. “This is the Kevin we know – the rhythm, his movement. We haven’t seen that so much this season.”
The rest of Europe will fear seeing more of it from here on. De Bruyne, even through his dips of form, has been Haaland’s most effective ally among City’s many creators, the suppliers of the passes Haaland envisaged himself capitalising on when, last year, he chose to move from Borussia Dortmund.
“I was thinking, last season, when they were crossing the ball in ‘I’d love to be there’,” recalled Haaland. “I knew I would score a lot of goals.”