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Champions League

Erling Haaland Is A Bolt, Or Five, Of Lightning

Erling Haaland of Manchester City next to a desperately diving Janis Blaswich of RB Leipzig in Champions League round-of-16
James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

Erling Haaland's first goal on Tuesday, in Manchester City's Champions League round-of-16 second leg against RB Leipzig, was a humdrum 22nd-minute penalty, awarded after the softest of handball rulings against Leipzig's Benjamin Henrichs. Haaland himself had been all but totally uninvolved in the play that led to the spot kick, but got the goal nonetheless, a theme that he has played to historic fruitfulness this season, and which he took to cartoonish extremes yesterday.

Not two full minutes later, harried by a City press the German side seemed totally unprepared for, Leipzig's keeper Janis Blaswich played a panicky clearance up the middle; City's Rúben Dias, with no Leipzig players anywhere near him, one-timed it directly back toward Leipzig's goal, where Haaland headed it down into the path of teammate Kevin De Bruyne. The right-footed De Bruyne, on the run and tightly surrounded by three Leipzig defenders, took a couple of touches and then somehow lashed a wicked left-footed shot off the crossbar from 20 yards out—had it come in a few inches lower, that shot would be the subject of this blog—and there was Haaland, heading the rebound into the open goal while Blaswich flopped helplessly on the grass.

He'd barely gotten started. (He'd also barely done anything.) A little over a minute into first-half stoppage time, a City corner-kick found its way to the head of Dias, who headed it into the right goalpost. The deflection, possibly with some accidental help from the hapless, diving Blaswich, took the ball perfectly across the face of the goal, straddling the goal line without ever going in ... to where Haaland, on the left side of the goal, simply stuck his foot out and deflected it into the back of the net. The big Norwegian had scored a goal by moving the ball roughly 12 centimeters. He had a hat trick from, I really must emphasize, a combined total of like 0.2 seconds of interaction with the ball.

And he wasn't done! In the 53rd minute, another City corner found Bernardo Silva on the left side of Leipzig's goal; Silva headed the ball back over to the right side, where Haaland went up and got it, heading it down and off of the hand of the doomed and diving Blaswich. A carom off City's Manuel Akanji threatened to put it in the goal, and all a kneeling Blaswich could do was feebly slap it away ... directly to Haaland, a yard away, who half-volleyed it in for his fourth goal.

By now it was hilarious. When, in the 57th minute, the unbelievably accursed Blaswich slapped away a deflected cross directly to a wide-open Haaland's right foot in virtually the same spot as the previous goal, and Haaland one-timed it in (this time with his right foot), I laughed so hard no sound came out.

The man had five goals. On none of them had he so much as taken a dribble, or even a first touch to control the ball. Not one of them came directly from a teammate passing the ball to him, or blossomed directly from any legible attacking sequence. They were like freak weather events. Erling Haaland just happened, and then happened again, and again. And again and again. If it wasn't quite a dream come true for him ...

...it's alarmingly close.

None of this is to diminish the accomplishment in any way! Haaland's facility for putting himself in the right place to mop up the mess like this is a skill, or a constellation of skills, turbocharged by his incredible athletic gifts; efficient finishing, likewise, is a skill. The reason for bringing him to Manchester in the first place was to give just this sort of pure goal-scoring punch to a great team sometimes weighed down by an inability to score except when it could conjure downright otherworldly precision and coordination. He's been doing less ludicrous versions of this all season long: Tuesday's rampage puts him at 39 goals in 36 games across all competitions, on fewer touches by far than any other City regular.

Poor overmatched Leipzig fell victim to all of what makes Haaland special, taken to its absurd extreme: Five goals, spread across maybe two total seconds of direct engagement with the ball. It hardly seems fair. But it's a great show, so long as you don't happen to blink just then.

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