Man City, Haaland showing no stress in pursuit of Premier League title

MANCHESTER, England — These are the moments when title challengers are meant to feel the pressure. The business end of a gruelling campaign, the annoyance of rivals winning and a tricky test against a team that beat you not so long ago — it meant Manchester City‘s fixture against Wolves had all the ingredients for an end-of-season slip-up.

But Manchester City are not just any team, and Erling Haaland is not just any striker. Rather than feeling the squeeze, they seem to embrace these high-stakes games in May. Arsenal did their job on Saturday, beating Bournemouth 3-0 in the early kick-off to move four points clear at the top. But when it came time for City to respond they did so emphatically, winning 5-1 thanks to four goals from Haaland to close the gap to one.

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City have three games left — one more than Arsenal — and if they win them all, they will be champions for a record fourth year in a row. There was nothing in their commanding performance against Wolves — who beat City 2-1 at Molineux in September — to suggest they won’t do exactly that, although as usual, Pep Guardiola wasn’t completely happy.

“Nine points and we will be champions,” Guardiola said afterwards. “Seven, six or three points, Arsenal will win the Premier League. I don’t have the feeling that it was really good, especially in the first half. We found the goals, but we lost a lot of simple balls.

“It looks comfortable, but it was not. They are a really, really good team, but we made the right calls at the right moment.”

If City are feeling any pressure at all, it’s not showing. If anything, Guardiola looked more relaxed than ever in his pre-match news conference on Friday, winking and laughing with reporters after saying his weekly meeting with the media was the “best day of the week.”

Haaland isn’t showing signs of tension, either. When City were awarded an early penalty after Rayan Aït-Nouri collided with Josko Gvardiol in the box, goalkeeper José Sá did his best to get inside the Norwegian striker’s head. He tried to engage Haaland in conversation as the City forward put the ball on the spot, but rather than getting flustered, the 23-year-old simply tucked the ball away with the calmness of a park player shooting between two trees.

It was at that point, just 12 minutes in, that any optimistic Arsenal fan probably switched off the television, and they were right to spend their Saturday doing something else. Haaland scored again with a towering back-post header after 35 minutes, and before referee Craig Pawson had blown his whistle for half-time, he gave City another penalty — this time with the help of VAR Stuart Attwell — and Haaland completed a first-half hat-trick.

Perhaps a Wolves goal early in the second half would crank up the pressure? Perhaps not. Hwang Hee-chan scored not long after the break to make it 3-1, but any hope of turning up the heat on City was ended when, less than a minute later, Haaland scored his fourth — and best — of the afternoon. That makes it 36 goals for the season in all competitions, despite missing two months in the winter with a foot injury. Haaland went off before the end to a standing ovation, and there was still time for his replacement, Julián Álvarez, to score City’s fifth.

“Erling is back to business,” said Guardiola. “Penalties are a guarantee but the second and fourth [goals] were unbelievable. He was injured, an important one. He’s so tall. To come back to his best form, he needs time. Happy for his performance and his exceptional goals. Really pleased for him.”

Wolves manager Gary O’Neil was equally effusive. “Every time he got a sight of goal, it ended up in the goal,” he said. “That’s the level you face here. They’re going for a fourth title in a row so they’re obviously difficult to stop. You have to be near perfect here and we weren’t. They have an incredible focus at this time of the season and history tells you at this point in the run-in, they are difficult to stop.”

With back-to-back away games against Fulham and Tottenham to come, there is still danger for City in this title race, but there are far more reasons to be positive than to worry. Guardiola has a fully fit squad again with Haaland, Éderson, Phil Foden, Rúben Dias and John Stones all back, and they have a free week ahead of the trip to Craven Cottage next weekend. The following day, Arsenal travel to Manchester United for their most difficult game of the run-in.

City haven’t lost a league game since December, and victory over Wolves was their sixth Premier League win in a row. This is what they do. They won 11 in a row last season to win the title, and the year before, they won six of their last seven to lift the trophy on the final day.

If Arsenal drop points at Old Trafford — they’ve only won there once in the league since 2006 — City would only need to win two of their last three games to win the title. Mikel Arteta’s side is doing their best to keep up the pressure, but after cruising past Wolves, City look like a team marching toward another title.