Erling Haaland was named last season’s PFA Players’ Player of the Year on Tuesday and, on this evidence, he has no intention of relinquishing that crown this term. The Manchester City striker has had plenty of better games than this – as have his team-mates – but the fact that he claimed a hat-trick and an assist and still left you thinking he was playing well within his limits is a rather chilling thought for rivals.
After City benefited from a most contentious Var call, which left the Fulham manager Marco Silva and his players seething, to take a fortuitous 2-1 lead into the interval, Haaland was pulled aside at half-time and asked to step it up by Juanma Lillo, City’s assistant manager.
“I said [to him] in the break, ‘This is not an easy game but you can still help us by scoring’,” said Lillo, who has taken on the role of stand-in manager with Pep Guardiola still recuperating in Barcelona after back surgery. “And he scored three.”
A fifth Premier League hat-trick, plundered in the space of just 37 minutes, means Haaland is now the fastest player to surpass 50 goals involvements in the competition – a record achieved in just 39 matches.
But whether the second period would have proven quite so straightforward for City had the game not controversially turned on its head on the cusp of half-time is something Fulham were left to simmer over. Even Haaland himself felt Fulham had been hard done by and claimed he would have been “fuming” had City been on the wrong end of such a decision.
The flash point came in the fifth minute of first-half stoppage time when Nathan Ake headed home Phil Foden’s corner. Without their best player Joao Palhinha, who had seen a dream move to Bayern Munich dramatically collapse the night before, Fulham had been more than City’s equal to that point and bounced straight back from going a goal down when Tim Ream cancelled out Julian Alvarez’s opener.
Yet now they were nursing a deep sense of injustice. Manuel Akanji, who was standing in an offside position, had jumped acrobatically out of the way of Ake’s header and, while he may not have made contact with the ball, it seemed hard to argue that he was not blocking the view of the Fulham goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
Yet the Var, Tony Harrington, ruled that Akanji had made no contact with the ball and was not interfering so the goal was allowed to stand, with Silva and his players incredulous that the referee Michael Oliver had not been directed to the pitchside monitor as a bare minimum.
“Everyone that plays football, everyone that has some knowledge about football [will be] 100 per cent sure you have to disallow that goal,” Silva said. “And of course we speak between us – our players, their players, what Haaland said as well after the match. Of course everyone has to be fuming if you have a goal against you like that. I believe it can be difficult for the linesman; for the Var it’s impossible not to disallow that goal.
“It’s clear the player is in the line of the ball and pulled out of the way of the line of the ball and the goalkeeper was influenced completely by that. It’s a clear offside so how was that goal not disallowed by the Var?”
One suspects Howard Webb, the PGMOL’s chief refereeing officer, may be having to make another apology this week. Haaland, for one, was astonished by the decision. “I think it was offside as well,” he said with admirable honesty. “I feel bad for them. I would be fuming if I was them.”
And fuming Fulham were. When a replay of the goal appeared on the stadium’s big screens, Fulham’s players surrounded Oliver, with Harry Wilson leading the protests, bemused that the referee was not being sent to review the incident. Silva had torn into the fourth official Michael Salisbury before then but, on this occasion, the Portuguese – who had been booked in each of his side’s opening three league matches and served a one-match touchline ban in midweek as a result – avoided another yellow card.
City had been well below their best before, with Lillo admitting afterwards that “none of the team played well”, Haaland included. Fulham, by contrast, were organised, obdurate and full of fight. “We didn’t find freshness in our play and our opponents kept the ball well so it would have been difficult for any No 9,” Lillo said.
With Jack Grealish absent through injury, Jeremy Doku started but looked a little lost on his City debut following his £55 million move from Rennes and, while they both ended the game having made an indelible impression, the champions again lost some fluency with Alvarez and Haaland in the same line-up.
Silva had urged his players not to lose focus, despite their obvious anger, but they did just that in the second half as City brushed them aside. Haaland claimed the first of his three with a smart finish after Ream had inadvertently knocked Alvarez’s pass into the Norway striker’s path. Alvarez was then tripped by Issa Diop and Haaland made no mistake with his penalty, a week after a rare miss from the spot against Sheffield United. His third came deep in stoppage time when Sergio Gomez weaved past Timothy Castagne on the by-line and pulled the ball back for Haaland who met the ball with a thundering low finish.
“Don’t worry, I’m back,” Haaland said. “I am always hungry. It’s a new season and I am ready for it. We started a bit late and a bit sloppy because we played right until the last game [of last season] because we are the best club but we will only get better and better from here.”