For true center forwards, only moments in a game count. Only the ones that flicker by again and again later in excruciatingly slow slow motion. The scenes of a centre-forward are like betting on red or black, even or odd, goal or out. That evening, Erling Haaland had only 26 short ball contacts, only ten of them in the penalty area Borussia Dortmund. But when he was in the air in the 84th minute, like a kung fu fighter, between three Dortmund players and balanced the ball with his outstretched toe into the BVB goal, statistics no longer counted. Just one: 2-1 for Manchester City. The winner takes it all.
The moments of goalscorers cannot be explained. Dortmund’s experienced defender Mats Hummels summed it up: “Erling Haaland that’s Erling Haaland.” Playing against him must mean never letting him get to the ball. That’s something you learned during the time together when the tall blonde played for BVB. Manchester coach Pep Guardiola enthused: “Like him the goal makes, this flexibility, that’s unbelievable. I saw Johan Cruyff play back then. Haaland is also a very special player.”
And Haaland himself? Smirked mischievously but reluctantly at the TV cameras. Dortmund made one of the two best games as long as he followed the club. In the end he felt more pressure than he expected of himself. “But when I saw Edin (Terzic), Marco (Reus) and Jude (Bellingham, editor’s note) while warming up and felt, okay, I’m playing against them now: It felt strange.” After his goal against his old buddies from Dortmund, Haaland only managed to raise his arm carefully to celebrate.
Before Haaland’s appearance, BVB City was on the verge of defeat
“I just have long legs,” Haaland later commented mischievously on his martial arts performance, “and I train my flexibility.” When asked whether he hadn’t been signed off for 80 minutes by Dortmund’s defender pair Hummels and Niklas Süle, the Norwegian responded with that relaxed job description that only center forwards who decided the game in the end can come up with: “It’s my job to be in the penalty area all the time, waiting for the chance.” Whether Haaland wanted to say that he had already acquired Zen-like patience in three months at one of the richest clubs in the world remained open.
However, the intergalactic amazement at Haaland, who scored 62 goals in Dortmund in 69 competitive games and twelve in City in eight games so far, could have been put into perspective if football weren’t so into heroic stories that a kung fu Haaland then outshines everything else. It went under that Dortmund Manchester City in the third Champions League clash for the third time with 1: 2, most recently in spring 2021 in the quarter-finals, also then under Edin Terzic. But City were clearly on the brink of defeat. And she would have deserved it.
If you analyzed the complex organism of the game more closely, you could see that City was not able to turn the game around in the end just because of Haaland’s flash of genius. On the one hand, the death of the English Queen Elizabeth II enabled the Premier League and thus City to have a mourning weekend without a game. While BVB had to fight an attrition duel with their direct rival RB Leipzig (and even lost it 0:3). Hummels attested to his teammates that their strength dwindled after the 80th minute. “We were tired. Then, twenty meters from our goal, we simply let the opponents stand too freely instead of going beyond the limits until the 95th minute, when every step hurts.”
Dortmund had led 1-0 since the 56th minute through a goal by Jude Bellingham, and for a long time controlled City as much as Guardiola’s ensemble can. It may be that a lot of extra leg work was necessary. But when in the 80th minute City’s John Stones was able to pull away unhindered from 20 meters and the ball went in to make it 1-1, that was the first shot that ever came on the goal of substitute goalkeeper Alexander Meyer. Until then, Dortmund had shielded Manchester well with a cover tactic such as a central massif.
As unfair as it may be, Stones’ shot would probably have been saved somehow by Dortmund’s injured first-choice goalkeeper Gregor Kobel. Just as Manuel Neuer usually not only keeps the balls that you hold as a class goalkeeper against someone like Robert Lewandowski – but a little more. Kobel is not new, but BVB would have survived a few more minutes of tiredness with him. And then what?
Was it a good idea from Terzic to change the system?
At the other end of BVB’s line-up, the other small weakness was revealed. Center forward Anthony Modeste, unfairly the counterpart to Erling Haaland, had some good scenes in his own penalty area and fought against the attempts of the city players with his stature and his header game. Offensively, however, Modeste was shown his limits. Fixing balls, allowing your own second row to move up – that didn’t happen that evening. Dortmund’s intended center forward Sebastien Haller would be a different caliber on the pitch. But he is currently busy with chemotherapy, football is out of the question.
And so Dortmund could have listed that its three fastest players, Donyell Malen, Karim Adeyemi and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, either did not intervene at all or only late in the titanic struggle on the pitch, and also Gio Reyna, just from one returned after almost a year of injury misery, could not advance the offensive efforts.
“Football is about winning,” Hummels said, frustrated, “and well, a point here in Manchester would have been good too. We had City exactly where we wanted them until the 80th minute. But it was too little to see this through to the end. We can’t buy anything for the rest.” His trainer Terzic was perhaps happy that everything could finally be blamed on Haaland’s flying genius. “There aren’t many players who can handle balls like that to make it 2-1.”
Back home, Terzic will go through the injury list and perhaps consider whether it was really a good idea to switch the game system to a deceptively better 5-4-1 just before Manchester’s two late goals. Shortly before the end it is probably best not to change anything. On Saturday against Schalke 04, the arch rivals from the neighborhood, the system will be different anyway.