Erling Haaland’s Premier League career is so brief that he was crowned PFA Player of the Year for his debut season only this week. It is nevertheless already the case that only eight players have scored more hat-tricks in the division. His fifth in the top flight, and seventh for Manchester City, drew him level with Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie, Ian Wright, Raheem Sterling, Dimitar Berbatov and Andy Cole.
Arguably each could be called a Premier League great. Certainly each had a far longer career than Haaland, who has Luis Suarez and Wayne Rooney in his sights now. If he was Sergio Aguero’s belated successor as City’s striker, he is the threat to the Argentinian’s divisional record of 12 trios.
His latest treble was a combination of the opportunistic and the deadly. As Fulham suffered their habitual defeat to Manchester City – making it 15 losses on the trot and taking the aggregate score in the last 10 meetings at the Etihad Stadium to 32-3 – the most important goal was the most contentious, scored by Nathan Ake on the stroke of half-time.
Then Haaland turned it into a rout. When Julian Alvarez’s shot bounced off Tim Ream and fell obligingly, he slotted a shot past Bernd Leno. When Alvarez was bundled over in the box by Issa Diop, Haaland, who had struck the post with a spot-kick at Sheffield United last week, converted emphatically. When the substitute Sergio Gomez embarked on a mazy solo run and supplied a low cutback, Haaland arrowed a shot into the bottom corner.
He had already been announced as the player of the match, though he probably has a surfeit of the hardware such prizes produce. He took his tallies to 38 goals in 28 games at the Etihad and 42 in 39 Premier League games. He also had a part in four goals, as Alvarez did in three: in each case, not always with perfect accuracy when finding the other.
Arguably Haaland was shooting when he latched on to Mateo Kovacic’s line-breaking pass; it became a perfect centre for Alvarez to tuck in the opener amid a swift exchange of goals, Ream levelling two minutes later when Ederson parried a Raul Jimenez shot to him.
Haaland ended the day with a direct goal involvement every 4.25 touches: there were 17 in all, but he is a master of efficiency.
Perhaps the Norwegian’s relentless appetite for goals was a reason he remained on the pitch in the closing stages, even after the often overworked Rodri and the excellent Phil Foden had been substituted, when Juanma Lillo – or perhaps the absent and injured Pep Guardiola, if he was communicating with his assistant – brought on Gomez and even Kalvin Phillips, men rarely trusted when the result was at stake. Certainly victory was already secured here, along with a return to the top of the table: West Ham, who City displaced, are their next opponents.
Haaland served another purpose. This was shaping up as his latest, though definitely not the last, outbreak of tedious whingeing and even more tedious whataboutery that some try to disguise as debate; analysis, even.
Instead, the remarkable, almost ridiculous nature of his scoring feats demoted it to a subplot. There was no doubt the turning point came on the stroke of half-time, when Ake struck. Yet amid the grim inevitability of never-ending moaning about referees and VAR, Fulham should simply lament their inability to mark Ake from a corner.
Instead, the Dutchman, preferred to the £77m signing Josko Gvardiol, was left in glorious isolation when Foden whipped the ball in. His header was similarly exact, too, directed into the corner. Leno could not reach it though Manuel Akanji, undeniably offside, lingered in his line of vision, waved a foot and failed to make contact; the Swiss international had the most touches in the match, 114, and yet all were less notable than the touch he didn’t take. Referee Michael Oliver awarded the goal, VAR Tony Harrington did not overrule him and Fulham argued.
Less, admittedly, than they had when they visited Manchester six months earlier and when they had less of a case, when they showed such dissent to a correct decision that manager Marco Silva and striker Aleksandar Mitrovic got red cards and FA charges. This time they kept a full complement of players and coaches. Silva, who had been booked in each of their first three league games, avoided a fourth yellow card.
And perhaps they lost focus. If that can be perilous against anyone, it is especially dangerous against Haaland. The eventual scoreline renders it harder to argue defeat came courtesy of a decision. And if a 37-minute treble was not his quickest or his most memorable, almost certainly, it will not be his last hat-trick, either.
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