Kevin de Bruyne is back, Phil Foden is firing… and now Erling Haaland has found his shooting boots. So, how do you stop Manchester City?
The defending champions have been building momentum for weeks but, until Saturday, they were doing it without any goals from the most prolific striker in the land.
Haaland’s wait was mostly down to the foot injury that sidelined him for most of December and January, but he had still gone 419 Premier League minutes without a goal and had endured a run of 17 efforts that did not find the net.
That changed against Everton, when the Norwegian ended his worst scoring drought since moving to England in 2022 – and gave his side a crucial lead – in spectacular style.
For more than an hour at Etihad Stadium, Everton’s defensive resilience frustrated City and meant Haaland was given few opportunities to find the right finish.
Then, after 71 minutes during which he barely had a touch, the ball broke for him from a corner, and he did not hesitate before smashing it home.
“The changes in the second half gave us another rhythm and of course Erling is back,” City boss Pep Guardiola said afterwards. “To have this player, when the ball is there from a corner, and the finishing was amazing.”
De Bruyne was one of the changes Guardiola was referring to, with the Belgian emerging to lift City’s passing tempo just before the hour mark, and linking up with Haaland for City’s second goal.
But it was Haaland’s first finish which won him the most plaudits, and was a reminder of his instinctive talents in front of goal.
“Haaland hadn’t had a sniff before, but he doesn’t care,” TNT pundit Rio Ferdinand said. “He is in his absolute prime in terms of physical capabilities.
“He looked way off the pace, but he doesn’t care. ‘Let the ball bounce anywhere near me, and I’ll bag it.’
Haaland has now scored 52 goals in his first 50 Premier League starts – stats that “draw a gasp” according to Ferdinand.
Like many other teams, Everton had kept Haaland quiet until he scored but still ended up wondering how to stop him.
“That’s why he is who he is,” said Toffees manager Sean Dyche. “He doesn’t have many touches some games, but he scores. That’s the key.
“I must say, his finish for the first one, there is no thought. I’ve been speaking to our players recently, and there’s a growing thing about footballers scoring trendy goals – whippers and dippers – but he didn’t think about that.
“Just score a goal, that’s the trendiest thing you will ever do, and Erling showed that today – he just went ‘bang’. It was good technique, he smashes it, and he wasn’t worried about anything else.”
Even though he went 76 days without scoring, Haaland was still joint-top of the Premier League goal charts with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah – and now has the top spot to himself.
He has 16 league goals so far and although he may struggle to match his tally of 36 from last season, when he hit 52 in all competitions, he will surely play a big part in City’s attempt to follow up their Treble from 2022-23 with a repeat of that success.
City have now won 10 games in a row in all competitions – a run that helped send them top of the Premier League until Liverpool beat Burnley later on Saturday.
Guardiola’s side are still in the FA Cup – they face Luton in the fifth round later this month – and resume their Champions League defence against FC Copenhagen on Tuesday.
With four months of the season to go, it feels like they are getting stronger – the second half was the first time since they won the Champions League final in June that Haaland, De Bruyne and John Stones were on the pitch at the same time.
“This is the business end of the season and it’s like one of City’s superpowers that they can change players and the output doesn’t change,” Ferdinand said.
“The standards don’t drop, no other team in Europe can do that. That is the powerhouse they have become and they have players who are difference-makers all over the team – plus City’s players on the bench walk into any other Premier League side.”
One of those substitutes on Saturday was De Bruyne, who has only just returned from a long-term injury.
His late assist – his 106th in the Premier League – was a reminder of his relationship with Haaland that has provided so many City goals.
Asked about their understanding, Guardiola explained: “It has been like that since day one.
“Kevin needs runners, and the runner for Kevin needs assists. They made a natural connection from the beginning. Of course with Erling and Kevin, we are stronger, it is obvious – and it’s really important for us that they are both back.
“Kevin, since he came back, is so fresh in his mind and legs and that is why sometimes I don’t want to start him. He and Kyle Walker made incredible contributions when they came on.”