Watch in awe at Haaland’s feats, but it’s still hard to turn a blind eye to how City created such a glorious
Riath Al-Samarrai email@example.com
dmg media (UK)
IT was an interesting week for a couple of strikers tied loosely to the same question of integrity. One of those was Erling Haaland. With each passing game there is new cause to redefine the brilliance and boundaries of a striker who would double as a first-rate surgeon, if we are to go by the job he has done in extracting sticks from the backsides of those grumbling souls who decide the player ratings at L’Equipe. It’s a well-respected paper, L’Equipe. But their player scores have long favoured a curmudgeonly outlook — our expert eye isn’t so easily pleased as yours; that kind of vibe. Except they rated Haaland a perfect 10 for his five goals against RB Leipzig on Tuesday, and the thing with their 10s is they have very rarely given them across the decades. Only 13 other players have hit full marks and Haaland is one of just two, with Lionel Messi, to receive it twice. He is out on his own as doing so in the same season. I watched him perform his latest dance of beautiful violence in midweek and there were conflicting feelings. Primarily it was admiration for a striker whose only limits in the pursuit of records in this country will be determined by his health and his desire to stick around. It was also easy to appreciate the depths of his gifts beyond scoring — his five finishes were from no more than 37 yards combined, but that tells nothing of how his pressing on two men forced the turnover of possession for his second goal, and likewise the raw data conceals how important his decoy run was to him poaching the third. He is a battering ram, yes. But he is a battering ram with a fast-acting brain and precisely the man who might finally reunite Pep Guardiola with the greatest trophy in club football. And therein lies the difficulty, because it can be hard to savour the multi-faceted qualities of Haaland, his team-mates and the enduring quests of Guardiola without bouncing back to the awkward question of whether we should admire Manchester City at all. Whether we can trust the mechanisms, systems and cashflows that allowed them to award a contract worth upwards of an estimated £800,000 each week to one player and remain within the financial rules. Whether the fullness of time will show their magnificent castle was built on sand and accounting sleights of hand. We don’t yet know how all that dry business will shake out, with the Premier League investing four years into an investigation that has yielded charges for more than 100 alleged breaches of financial regulations. City say they are innocent, just as UEFA’s former chief investigator Yves Leterme is convinced they are guilty of ‘fraud’. The purpose here isn’t to rehash and try those charges but more to chew at the subject of City’s standing and reputation and from there to query how many even care that the greatest British football club of the past decade are engulfed in such a thick stench. It is about the contradictory feel of admiring a wonderful team and turning a blind eye to the journey they are accused of taking to get there. About knowing this could be the right year, with the right striker, when it clicks for Guardiola in the Champions League, but that there might be dynamite under his feet. The troubling bit concerns the present-day successes if this interminable process drifts to some distant point in time before it is eventually resolved. We should neither assume City are guilty nor innocent, but if the Premier League win this long and messy battle, would anyone of sound mind expect the overlords of the various competitions to take a scrubbing brush to what we are seeing now? Or will they settle for fines, a victory in their present, and the easier option of leaving history untouched? For that reason we are experiencing the limitations of sporting justice and integrity — issues requiring some urgency but invariably examined in slow motion. Which makes me think to the second striker mentioned at the top of this column. To Ivan Toney and the ongoing question of 262 betting breaches he is accused of committing. The night after Haaland nailed RB Leipzig, Toney scored and got an assist for Brentford against Southampton and he has since been picked for England, with Gareth Southgate seeing no reason to do otherwise when he has not yet faced a trial. BUT his case does by its very nature strike at the heart of the integrity question, even though none of his breaches are believed to involve bets against his own team. That he was pursued across a seven-month investigation, and a further four have passed since the first charges were issued in November, makes you ask when it will be settled. As far as we understand there is no hearing date, which raises the observation that a vaccine was invented for Covid 19 in less time than it took to establish if a good striker broke rules on gambling. If the evidence of the alleged offences does not point to a serious threat to football’s integrity, was there no sensible forum in which this case might have been heard far sooner? If it does point in any way to a more sinister direction, then why has he been allowed to continue playing since November 16, in which time he has directly won 14 points for Brentford with his goals? That and the City case are different in all ways, from seriousness to ramifications and scale. And yet they are united by moving at a pace bettered by the average glacier and vulnerable to unresolved questions of how much mess they might be leaving in their wake.