The hat-trick man is back – if he was ever away. Erling Haaland’s fourth Premier League treble swept him to 25 competition goals, 31 in all, and may signal Manchester City are again the slick winning machine Pep Guardiola demanded.
The win takes the champions to two behind Arsenal ahead of the leaders later game on Sunday afternoon against Manchester United. Haaland, as he does, made scoring appear child’s play – his strikes di lui came in a 17-minute exhibition – and so Guardiola, for today at least, can be pleased with the response to the scattergun call to arms that came after Thursday’s victory over Tottenham and which was repeated before kick-off in a demand for “fire and passion”.
In his next sentence Guardiola claimed: “I love my players so much.” If this was the Catalan dancing between rousing his charges and the need to keep them onside, he decided two of those from Spurs meeting – Julián Álvarez and Nathan Aké – should be discarded as Kevin De Bruyne and Aymeric Laporte were restored.
Towards the end of this game the half-time jeers the home support met their side with three days ago had been forgotten as City knocked the ball insouciantly about and around Julen Lopetegui’s side.
Wolves’s manager had instructed his players to flood the champions near Ederson’s goal when in possession. The problem was City are the ball-hoggers supreme so the other tactic was more rudimentary: strong-arm them, such as when Max Kilman crashed into Ilkay Gündogan (earning Kilman a yellow card) and Hwang Hee-chan shoved aside Rico Lewis after which Mario Lemina entered David Coote’s book after protesting the free-kick. Next, to make three cautions in 13 minutes, Lopetegui’s name was written down by the referee for his furious reaction of him.
This all began at the opening corner when two Nélson Semedo tussles with John Stones had the latter down and meant City’s love of fluidity had to overcome a disruptor.
Lopetegui, the former Spain and Real Madrid head coach who, in needing to adapt to the more modest talents of those in gold, could be happy at City’s relative toothlessness so far. A 20-yard effort from Jack Grealish that warmed José Sá’s hands troubled him as much as Gündogan’s loose header after Lewis teed him up. When Haaland rampaged through there was relief at a Nathan Collins touch which thwarted the striker.
A Guardiola mantra is that all encounters in the division are tough but Wolves arrived as the league’s lowest scorers with 12 and with only two wins over City in 20 years yet the hosts still grasped for the missing and vital percentages their manager identified. Six minutes before the break the search ended.
Riyad Mahrez danced along the right, De Bruyne received and flipped over the ball, and Haaland headed past Sá. Moments later Collins caught Grealish’s leg but after the winger went down and the VAR scanned replays, no penalty was the verdict.
Two-nil would have been the interval standings, though, if Collins’s forehead did not clear a Grealish attempt, followed by a Gündogan cross-shot from the line, so Wolves were grateful when Coote blew for the tea and oranges.
Guardiola swapped Aké for Lewis, and Lopetegui exchanged João Moutinho, Matheus Cunha and Pablo Sarabia (making his debut) for Adama Traoré, Hee-chan and Raúl Jiménez. Sarabia might have instantly leveled with a header before City scored to kill the contest. Rúben Neves pulled down Gündogan, Coote awarded the spot-kick and Haaland rolled it in. “Two-nil at the library,” quipped the traveling support (a dig at Guardiola’s dig at the home fans on Thursday) but noise did ensue when City broke, Grealish lobbed to Mahrez, and he missed at close range.
Sá gifted Haaland his third via a horrible howler. The goalkeeper’s lazy pass was mopped up by Mahrez and he tapped to the Norwegian who was never going to miss from yards out. Towards the end, Gündogan missed a header that had Guardiola clutching his head. It was immaterial to the result but not to the manager, just one more illustration of how driven he is.
Haaland’s last hat-trick was in October’s 6-3 hammering of Manchester United. At the final whistle all of a City persuasion tuned in to do what is anathema: cheer on their crosstown rival in the hope they could beat Arsenal.