MANCHESTER, England — It’s a hallmark of Manchester City’s relentlessness that there always seems to be someone ready to step up.
In the last month, Oscar Bobb scored a stoppage-time winner at Newcastle United and Nathan Aké got a late goal at Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup. Julián Álvarez got two goals against Burnley in the Premier League. At Brentford on Monday, Phil Foden got three.
Invariably last season, City’s match-winner was Erling Haaland, but while he’s been away nursing a broken bone in his foot, manager Pep Guardiola has found other players willing to take on the responsibility of continuing their push for more trophies.
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Now, though, Haaland is back and against Everton at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, normal service was resumed. The Norway striker scored both goals as City won 2-0 and — for at least a few hours — went back to the top of the Premier League table.
“I cannot imagine him two months stopped and moving this huge body and be in shape again but he is back,” said Guardiola postmatch. “I think he is going to help. The first goal is a little bit careless but the finishing is incredible and the finishing for the second was incredible, as well. It is really important for us to have Erling with us.”
City were never at their flowing best, but Haaland’s name being back on the scoresheet will be enough to worry the rest of the league. Their first half was summed up in the final minute of the 45 when Alvarez robbed James Tarkowski on the left and looked up to see Haaland stood alone in the centre. But the Argentine’s pass was rushed and pushed too close to Jordan Pickford, who scooped it up easily and got a grateful nod from Tarkowski. It should have been a goal but — like most of the first half — City weren’t on the same wavelength and went down the tunnel at half-time at 0-0.
Haaland managed just 12 touches in the first half and you imagine that when Everton manager Sean Dyche made it down from the directors’ box (because he’s serving a touchline ban) to the dressing room at the break, he would have congratulated his team on half a job well done. But part of the problem with playing City is that to get a good result, you often need everything to go right and a mistake at any time can be punished mercilessly.
“Defensively very pleasing for a large part of the game,” said Dyche afterward. “I think they only had three shots on target which is unusual. [Haaland] doesn’t have many touches in some games but he scores. That’s why he is who he is and does what he does.”
Everton got away with Tarkowski’s error, but then they didn’t deal with a corner from the right midway through the second half, and a rocket from Haaland’s right boot made it 1-0. It was Haaland’s first goal since scoring against RB Leipzig on Nov. 28 and ended his longest goalless run in the Premier League after failing to find the net in his last four games in the competition.
He didn’t have to wait long for another. Kevin De Bruyne, on as a substitute, rolled a pass forward, allowing Haaland to bulldoze Jarrad Branthwaite to the ground and roll his finish into the far corner.
Two typical Haaland goals and, in the end, a very typical City win. It’s now 10 in a row in all competitions and for all the talk of a three-way title race with Liverpool and Arsenal, it still feels like Guardiola’s team are very much in control.
“I know the team, I see them every day, my opinion is it’s fresher and better and not affected by the fact that we lose games,” said the City manager. “They continue to be there. With Erling and Kevin we are stronger, it’s obvious, when a team loses consistency we have to be worried with the way they train, behave and run. When that happens, the team is alive and I was never concerned. Since Day 1 I didn’t have [a bad] feeling.
“The team this season in the difficulties make a step forward, coming back from losing positions. I love to win this type of game. The environment of the team, the feeling of the team from Day 1 this season, I said ‘OK, I like it.'”
City scored 39 times in 14 games between Haaland’s goals against Leipzig and Everton, proving that, if required, they can do it without their No.9. But with the 23-year-old back among the goals, they look as formidable as ever as they head into the part of the season when they’re traditionally at their best.
Everton discovered that the moment City and Haaland found their rhythm, the game disappeared very quickly. The concern for Liverpool, Arsenal and other challengers is that the same may well be true of the title.