Haaland simply must be final piece of Champions League puzzle at City despite shaky debut

By Sports Desk August 05, 2022

When Jack Grealish charged into the penalty area in the 87th minute at the Santiago Bernabeu late last season and saw his shot cleared off the line by Ferland Mendy, there seemed no way Manchester City would not be in the Champions League final.

They were 1-0 up in the semi-final second leg, 5-3 ahead on aggregate. Real Madrid had three minutes plus stoppage time to turn things around – even for a side who produced some memorable comebacks en route to the semi-finals, turning this tie around looked impossible.

Yet the tale unfolded in a matter of minutes, with City's Champions League aspirations dissolving for another season.

Over the course of the two legs, City were comfortably the better team and yet failed to advance to the final in Paris, where Madrid went on to beat Liverpool 1-0.

City's failure served to highlight a key deficiency in their squad.

Whether that's fair or not is up for debate, because they subsequently went on to win a fourth Premier League title in five years, and no one would have questioned the legitimacy of them seeing off Madrid, but when the victor is led by the type of figure the loser is lacking, it's an easy conclusion to jump to.

Karim Benzema may not have been at his unplayable best in that second leg, but he won and converted the ultimately decisive penalty, and the effectiveness with which he led the line in the first game ensured Madrid were still in with a shout upon the return to Spain.

City will now hope they have such a goalscoring talisman in Erling Haaland.

After a slightly unconvincing City debut in the Community Shield last week, failing to score against Liverpool from his game-high 1.04 expected goals (xG), Haaland will make his Premier League bow as the new season begins this weekend, with attention sure to soon turn to European action.

City apparently paid £51.3million (€60m) to Borussia Dortmund for his transfer. Even when you consider the apparently significant agents' fees, it is difficult to see this as anything other than a bargain for City.

The dust may now have settled on City's 2021-22 collapse in the Spanish capital, but it's hard not to look at the deal through the prism of Champions League failure because of what will now be expected – rather than hoped for – with a player like Haaland in the team.

When trying to understand what has specifically gone wrong for City in the Champions League since Pep Guardiola was hired, most observers seem to have different opinions. Some might point to an apparent lack of on-field leaders, others highlight wastefulness at crucial moments, and of course there are many who have bemoaned Pep's dreaded "overthinking".

The idea of there being a lack of on-field leaders has always seemed wide of the mark, while no one can accuse Guardiola of overcomplicating his selections against Madrid. Even if one were to try to claim that, City were on course for the final until the 90th minute of the second leg.

Similarly, wastefulness is something most clubs can be accused of at one time or another, and, in fact, across all the Champions League ties from which City have been eliminated under Guardiola, they have scored 17 times from 16.99 xG. Granted, there were occasions where they didn't score as often as they should have, but over time it evens itself out.

Yet perhaps this is where Haaland can make the difference. Sure, City's xG has evened out over the unsuccessful ties in question, but with a striker as freakishly deadly as the Norwegian – last Saturday at the King Power Stadium excepted – there becomes a greater opportunity to finish chances that maybe you wouldn't generally expect to.

Following his Bundesliga debut on January 18, 2020, Haaland scored 86 goals in 89 games for Dortmund in all competitions, averaging a goal every 84 minutes.

Only Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski (123 goals in 108 games) boasted a better scoring rate over that period among players from Europe's top five leagues.

Despite struggling with injuries in the 2021-22 season, Haaland still managed 29 goals in 30 games for BVB, including a strike in his final game. Twenty-one of those goals were scored via his favoured left foot, three came via his right and the other five were headers.

One thing you cannot accuse City of is being ineffective when it comes to controlling football matches and creating chances – they wouldn't have enjoyed the success they have in the Premier League, under intense pressure from an incredible Liverpool side, if not.

But in knockout ties when there is such a limited amount of time to respond to setbacks or make amends for certain mistakes, whether defensive or in front of goal, the value of the greatest strikers can shine through even more: Benzema showed that against City.

While there remain stylistic compatibility questions to be asked regarding City and Haaland – there were occasions last week when dangerous runs were not quite met by passes, as City adjust to playing with an out-and-out striker – they suddenly have arguably the finest finisher of his generation in their arsenal.

If Haaland isn't the final piece of the puzzle in City's quest for a maiden Champions League crown, Guardiola might as well give up.

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