Haaland to join Man City: If Norway star is not final piece of Champions League puzzle, Guardiola might as well give up

By Sports Desk May 10, 2022

Even when Jack Grealish charged into the penalty area in the 87th at the Santiago Bernabeu last week and saw his shot cleared off the line by Ferland Mendy, there seemed no way Manchester City wouldn't be in the Champions League final.

They were already 1-0 up on the night, 5-3 up on aggregate. Real Madrid had three minutes plus stoppage time to turn things around – even for a side that produced some memorable comebacks en route to the semi-finals, turning things around looked impossible.

Yet we all know how 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 few would disagree with the idea that they're almost certainly better equipped than Madrid to stop Liverpool in the final.

City's failure served to highlight a key deficiency in their squad. Whether that's fair or not is up for debate, because they look destined to win the Premier League title again and no one would've 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 the second leg last week, but he won and converted the ultimately decisive penalty, and the effectiveness with which he led the line in the first leg 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.

The club confirmed on Tuesday that Haaland will join at the end of the season, with City apparently set to pay £51.3million (€60m) to Borussia Dortmund for his transfer. Even when you consider the apparently significant agents' fees et cetera, it's difficult to see this as anything other than a bargain for City.

Of course, while the timing of the signing might frame it as a reaction to Champions League elimination, it's clearly not. Reports have suggested for weeks that the deal was virtually done and Haaland was going to follow in his father's footsteps by signing for City.

However, 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 Guardiola was hired, most people 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 they did 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 expected goals (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, there becomes a greater opportunity to finish chances that maybe you wouldn't generally expect to.

Haaland is a pure finisher unlike any other player in the world. Since his Bundesliga debut on January 18, 2020, he has scored 85 times from 69.7 xG across all competitions. Similarly, when excluding penalties he remains almost as potent, with 75 goals from 60.2 np-xG.

In both instances he has scored roughly 15 more goals than he should have based on the quality of his chances – among players with 30 or more goals over the same period, only Son Heung-min (16.1 and 16.5) can boast better xG differential figures. Again, ordinarily you'd expect this to even out over time, with such form usually unsustainable – but when you make the implausible look routine, this is the output you can produce.

One thing you cannot accuse City of is being ineffective when it comes to controlling football matches and creating chances – they wouldn't be about to claim a third Premier League title in four years if they were.

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

While there are likely to be stylistic compatibility questions to be asked regarding City and Haaland, particularly given the Premier League champions-elect haven't really played with an out-and-out striker for a couple of years now, 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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    St. Louis City will be desperate to snap a record six-game winless run in MLS when they host Colorado Rapids at CityPark Stadium on Thursday.

    The Missouri-based side have just three wins from their 17 league matches this term, falling down to 11th in the Western Conference standings.

    Bradley Carnell's men have not triumphed in MLS action since a 3-1 win over Chicago Fire in the middle of May, and were defeated 2-0 by FC Dallas last time out.

    St. Louis coach Carnell referenced injury struggles, however, as his side continue to battle through a troubling period.

    "Obviously, it doesn’t take a genius to look at the roster and see where we are. We're not the first team to struggle with this.

    "Now we get challenged and now get to prove what we are as a group, team, organisation and unit – sticking together.

    "We have a plethora of young players who are performing [for our academy] and we will keep some of those guys with us through the week."

    The Rapids have enjoyed a better season, sitting sixth in the West table after returning to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over Austin FC at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.

    That ended a four-game winless streak for Colorado, who secured a much-needed victory after a rocketed finish from Cole Bassett before Rafael Navarro netted his 10th goal of the season.

    The next challenge for the Rapids is to secure back-to-back victories for the first time since April, though they have lost three straight on the road.

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    St. Louis City – Jared Stroud

    Jared Stroud was involved in a goal in both matches (one goal, one assist) against the Rapids last season.

    The St. Louis man has eight assists to his name in MLS this season, too, and will hope to deliver once more when Colorado come to town.

    Colorado Rapids – Djordje Mihailovic

    Djordje Mihailovic has scored in each of the Rapids' last three away matches.

    He is the first Rapids player to score in three straight away from home in a single regular season since Shkelzen Gashi scored in five straight on the road from June-October 2016.

    MATCH PREDICTION – ST. LOUIS CITY WIN

    St. Louis are the heavy favourites for victory in this encounter, considering their record against the Rapids.

    Carnell's side collected four points from their two matches against Colorado last season, including a 2-0 win at home last July.

    Colorado have lost their last three road matches, conceding 10 goals in those games, and that run of form comes as no surprise.

    Indeed, the Rapids have lost 15 of their last 21 away from home in all competitions (W3 D3), dating back to last May.

    Yet a home win is by no means a foregone conclusion.

    St. Louis are winless in six straight matches (D2 L4) for the first time in club history. They have just three wins so far, tied for the fewest in MLS this season, though all three have come at home.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    St. Louis City win – 48.8%

    Colorado Rapids win – 25.5%

    Draw – 25.7%

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    Francisco Conceicao proved the hero on his first competitive appearance for Portugal after his stoppage-time winner snatched a 2-1 victory over Czechia in their Euro 2024 opener.

    Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player in the European Championship's 64-year history to appear in six editions, but his landmark moment was overshadowed by a glimpse into Portugal's future.

    Conceicao was introduced after 90 minutes and scored just two minutes later, capitalising on a loose ball to send Portugal level on points with leaders Turkiye, who beat Georgia 3-1 earlier on Tuesday in Group F.

    Robin Hranac's unavoidable own-goal had earlier cancelled out Lukas Provod's rocketed second-half opener before Conceicao announced himself on the international stage at the Leipzig Stadium.

    Roberto Martinez's team were the only side to win every qualifying game for this tournament, with a perfect 10 wins from as many matches, and dominated the first half of their opener without reward.

    Ronaldo almost marked his landmark appearance with a goal just eight minutes in but rushed an unmarked header in uncharacteristic fashion from Rafael Leao's whipped cross.

    Bruno Fernandes angled a deflected long-range effort narrowly over as the one-way traffic persisted, before the Manchester United midfielder's teasing ball just evaded the lunging Leao.

    Fernandes was again the architect when his delicate throughball found Ronaldo, who was denied by Jindrich Stanek's fantastic stop from point-blank range.

    The Czechia goalkeeper was on hand once more before the interval, parrying away another fizzing Ronaldo strike as these two sides were the first to be goalless at half-time at Euro 2024.

    Portugal completed 368 passes in that first-half onslaught, their most on record in a single half at the European Championships since records began in 1980, and little changed after the break.

    Ronaldo tested the hands of Stanek with a dipping free-kick just before the hour, though Portugal were stunned soon after when Provod cannoned into the top-left corner from the perimeter of Diogo Costa's area.

    Yet a response swiftly followed as Stanek parried Leao's downwards back-post header against Hranac, who could only deflect into his own net to level proceedings.

    Diogo Jota had a late finish ruled out by VAR after Ronaldo was adjudged offside before his rebounded strike, though Conceicao pounced from Pedro Neto's half-cleared left-wing cross to snatch all three points.

    Substitute heroics save Ronaldo's landmark appearance

    Ronaldo already holds the record for the most appearances in European Championship history (26), though this outing marked another historic moment for the 39-year-old.

    Having featured at every Euros since his 2004 debut, Ronaldo is the first to go to six editions of the tournament, where his 14 goals make him the leading scorer in history.

    The former Manchester United attacker could not add to his tally here, and it was a familiar tale at the Euros for Ronaldo, who missed the 2016 final victory over France after his gut-wrenching injury.

    Eder stepped up as the extra-time hero on that occasion, and he was the last Portugal substitute to score at the Euros before Conceicao did so here.

    Conceicao's goal came just 111 seconds after being introduced and marks the fastest such goal since Ferran Torres for Spain against Slovakia in June 2021 (41 seconds) – what an introduction for the Porto man.

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    Patrik Schick scored five of Czechia's six goals at Euro 2020, becoming only the second Czech player to be the sole or joint-top scorer at a European Championship tournament – after Milan Baros at the 2004 edition (five goals).

    The forward has since lifted the Bundesliga title with Bayer Leverkusen last term, helping Xabi Alonso's side to an unbeaten league season with seven top-flight goals.

    Considering his record at the Euros and the 2023-24 trophy-winning campaign, Czechia may want more from their star striker – who was withdrawn on the hour after being cautioned and failing to manage a single shot.

    Yet with or without Schick, Czechia could have never prepared for Conceicao's late intervention. Ivan Hasek's side have now lost five straight games against Portugal and must bounce back when they face Georgia on Saturday.

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    Francisco Conceicao proved the hero on his first competitive start for Portugal after his stoppage-time winner snatched a 2-1 victory over Czechia in their Euro 2024 opener.

    Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player in the European Championship's 64-year history to appear in six editions, but his landmark moment was overshadowed by a glimpse into Portugal's future.

    Conceicao was introduced after 90 minutes and scored just two minutes later, capitalising on a rebound to send Portugal level on points with leaders Turkiye, who beat Georgia 3-1 earlier on Tuesday in Group F.

    Robin Hranac's unavoidable own-goal had earlier cancelled out Lukas Provod's rocketed second-half opener before Conceicao announced himself on the international stage at the Leipzig Stadium.

    Roberto Martinez's team were the only side to win every qualifying game for this tournament, with a perfect 10 wins from as many matches, and dominated the first half of their opener without reward.

    Ronaldo almost marked his landmark appearance with a goal just eight minutes in but rushed an unmarked header in uncharacteristic fashion from Rafael Leao's whipped cross.

    Bruno Fernandes angled a deflected long-range effort narrowly over as the one-way traffic persisted, before the Manchester United midfielder's teasing ball just evaded the lunging Leao.

    Fernandes was again the architect when his delicate throughball found Ronaldo, who was denied by Jindrich Stanek's fantastic stop from point-blank range.

    The Czechia goalkeeper was on hand once more before the interval, parrying away another fizzing Ronaldo strike as these two sides were the first to be goalless at half-time at Euro 2024.

    Portugal completed 368 passes in that first-half onslaught, their most on record in a single half at the European Championships since records began in 1980, and little changed after the break.

    Ronaldo tested the hands of Stanek with a dipping free-kick just before the hour, though Portugal were stunned soon after when Provod cannoned into the top-left corner from the perimeter of Diogo Costa's area.

    Yet a response swiftly followed as Stanek parried Leao's downwards back-post header against Hranac, who could only deflect into his own net to level proceedings.

    Diogo Jota had a late finish ruled out by VAR after Ronaldo was adjudged offside before his rebounded finish, though Conceicao pounced from Pedro Neto's left-wing cross to snatch all three points.

    Substitute heroics save Ronaldo's landmark appearance

    Ronaldo already holds the record for the most appearances in European Championship history (26), though this outing marked another historic moment for the 39-year-old.

    Having featured at every Euros since his 2004 debut, Ronaldo is the first to go to six editions of the tournament, where his 14 goals make him the leading scorer in history.

    The former Manchester United attacker could not add to his tally here, and it was a familiar tale at the Euros for Ronaldo, who missed the 2016 final victory over France after his gut-wrenching injury.

    Eder stepped up as the extra-time hero on that occasion, and he was the last Portugal substitute to score at the Euros before Conceicao did so here.

    Conceicao's goal came just 111 seconds after being introduced and marks the fastest such goal since Ferran Torres for Spain against Slovakia in June 2021 (41 seconds) – what an introduction for the Porto man.

    Czech need more from Schick

    Patrik Schick scored five of Czechia's six goals at Euro 2020, becoming only the second Czech player to be the sole or joint-top scorer at a European Championship tournament – after Milan Baros at the 2004 edition (five goals).

    The forward has since lifted the Bundesliga title with Bayer Leverkusen last term, helping Xabi Alonso's side to an unbeaten league season with seven top-flight goals.

    Considering his record at the Euros and the 2023-24 trophy-winning campaign, Czechia may want more from their star striker – who was withdrawn on the hour after being cautioned and failing to manage a single shot.

    Yet with or without Schick, Czechia could have never prepared for Conceicao's late intervention. Ivan Hasek's side have now lost five straight games against Portugal and must bounce back when they face Georgia on Saturday.

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