Erling Haaland completes his set to help Man City avoid fatal slip-up

Man City 1-0 Brentford: Haaland’s second-half goal edged City to victory over the stubborn Bees

Richard Jolly
at the Etihad Stadium
Wednesday 21 February 2024 01:51 GMT
Erling Haaland rescued City against Brentford
Erling Haaland rescued City against Brentford (Reuters)

As Erling Haaland completed the set, Manchester City may have got back on track. Their bid for a historic fourth consecutive title threatened to be derailed in four days, the loss of four points in successive home games beckoning.

Enter Haaland. He had scored against 20 of the 21 opponents he had faced in the Premier League. Only Brentford had denied him, just as Brentford frustrated City for 70 minutes here. But, 10 days earlier, Everton held out for 70 minutes at the Etihad Stadium, too, conceded to Haaland in the 71st and lost. To the annoyance of City’s title rivals, history repeated itself.

There was a nod to the more distant past, too, to another three-way battle at the top a decade ago. Kristoffer Ajer’s costly loss of balance will not be the most famous slip in a title race – Steven Gerrard still boasts that dubious honour – but City emerged triumphant in 2014. If they do so again in 2024, they may thank a Norwegian besides their top scorer: the luckless Brentford defender.

Officially, the assist came from Julian Alvarez, who fed the ball forward. Yet a more decisive contribution came from Ajer, stumbling and tumbling to the turf, allowing Haaland a clear run at goal. He sidefooted past the defiant Mark Flekken. After his barren outing against Chelsea – nine shots and no goal – he had begun in similar vein, failing to take his first three chances. The fourth, however, was converted with icy calm. His drought against Brentford had only spanned two previous games; at the third time of asking, he found the net.

He needed to. City had amassed 16 shots before the break, 20 before the breakthrough. This was a 12th win in 13 games in all competitions but, if Saturday’s draw with Chelsea had not provided enough proof for Pep Guardiola’s theory that nothing is as easy as the wider world thinks, City had to strain and suffer.

Certainly Guardiola did. He was a picture of frustration in – and sometimes out of – his technical area, melodramatic gestures indicating his irritation: sometimes with Brentford’s timewasting, but often with his own side’s inability to find a way through. The bare facts are that Thomas Frank’s team have now lost nine of their last 11 games but they were excellent, their threat on the counterattack and defensive defiance illustrating why, 15 months ago, they were the last visitors to win at the Etihad. They showed why they have been the scourge of the big six in previous campaigns.

Pep Guardiola was a picture of frustration on the sideline at points (Reuters)

Flekken, who had produced perhaps the best performance of his decidedly mixed Brentford career against City in London 15 days earlier, was terrific again, the pick of his saves when he blocked a Ruben Dias header with his legs and, late on, when he stopped Phil Foden from doubling City’s lead. Ben Mee, who made a solitary appearance for City at the start of his career, executed a wonderful clearance on the line against them to prevent Oscar Bobb from marking his maiden Premier League start with a goal. There were misses, too: Bernardo Silva headed wastefully wide when set up by Kyle Walker. City missed the creativity of Kevin de Bruyne, an unused substitute, and presumably in no condition to be brought on. In his absence, Rodri proved their best crosser, again suggesting he can be the man for all situations.

Haaland, meanwhile, had been well policed by Mee. He was prevented from powering into space until Ajer lost his footing. He surged through to send City second, above Arsenal.

Erling Haaland stroked home the game’s only goal (Action Images via Reuters)

For most, they remain the favourites. Yet there were hints of frailty. Slow starts are becoming a theme and, while City engineered a flurry of opportunities in a few minutes before the break, they mustered too little of note in the first half-hour. Even as, with Silva and John Stones back in the starting 11, there was more fluency and less of a sense Rodri was a one-man midfield, even as there was a rare clean sheet, City could have conceded.

Brentford’s prowess on the break propelled them to victory at the Etihad Stadium in November 2022. City had been caught on the counterattack by Chelsea at the weekend. Brentford, brimming with speed, adopted the same approach. The clearest chance in the opening half-hour was spurned by Frank Onyeka. Yoane Wissa sent the midfielder in on goal, but he shot tamely at Ederson. Wissa was a menace, though, his speed too much for Stones when the defender was booked. Yet the chances Brentford may have hoped came Ivan Toney’s way instead fell to Onyeka, a player who is yet to score in 67 games for the club.

Meanwhile, for City, the crucial opportunity went to a man who now has 74 goals in 81 games for them. The law of averages dictated that Haaland was likely to score against Brentford sooner or later. And it came when City may have been beginning to contemplate another draw and wonder if the title was slipping from their grasp.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in