Manchester City are into the Champions League quarter-finals for a sixth consecutive season, but Erling Haaland’s five-goal haul in a 7-0 destruction of RB Leipzig put Europe on warning that this time may be different for the Premier League champions.
Pep Guardiola admitted before Tuesday’s last 16, second leg that his reign at City will be defined by either winning or failing to win the Champions League despite his side’s dominance of the Premier League in recent years.
Seven years on from Guardiola’s arrival, City are still waiting for their first European crown.
That is why they pushed the boat out on agents’ fees and wages to win the race to sign Haaland from Borussia Dortmund for a bargain £51 million ($62 million) last summer thanks to the Norwegian’s buyout clause.
In just 35 games Haaland has already rewritten City’s history books by scoring 39 goals in a single season.
More Champions League landmarks were reached on Tuesday as Haaland’s five goals equalled the record shared by Lionel Messi and Luiz Adriano for the most in a Champions League game.
In the process the 22-year-old also became the youngest player to pass 30 in Europe’s premier club competition with 32 in just 25 appearances.
“I was so tired after my celebrations,” said Haaland. “My super strength is scoring goals.”
City have not always possessed that clinical edge when it has mattered in the latter stages of the Champions League.
Missed chances have been a common theme of Guardiola’s European exits by the finest of margins.
“He was so hungry,” said RB Leipzig boss Marco Rose, who coached Haaland at Dortmund.
“He scored goals with the foot, with the head, he won second balls, he made deep runs. It all looked really simple tonight. It was a special night for him.”
– ‘It would be boring’ –
It could have been even more special had Guardiola not withdrawn Haaland with 25 minutes to go.
“I told him I would love to score a double hat-trick, but what can I do?” added Haaland.
Guardiola replied by joking his star striker’s life “would be boring” if he broke all the records before his 23rd birthday.
But what both player and manager have in common is a desire to finally make City European champions.
Despite Haaland’s stunning statistics, there have still been teething problems in his first season in England.
At times he has cut a frustrated figure as runs in behind went unnoticed by his teammates in Premier League defeats at Manchester United and Tottenham.
But Guardiola has also insisted that Haaland adjusts to City’s style by becoming an all-round striker just as capable of linking the play as of predatory finishes inside the box.
“Today he scored five goals and I think he had 30 or 35 ball contacts. This is what we were looking for because we had the feeling when you are involved in the game defensively, offensively, when the ball comes to score a goal, you are more precise,” Guardiola said.
“He can do it, but it is difficult to score goals when you don’t touch the ball for 40 or 50 minutes.
“Sometimes it’s his fault because sometimes he doesn’t move… but the other (times) it is our fault where we didn’t find him.”
The fear for City’s opponents at home and abroad is that those minor issues may have been ironed out in time for the final and most decisive three months of the season.