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BURNLEY, England — New season, same old Erling Haaland.
Pep Guardiola spent the week before Manchester City’s game at Burnley trying to lower expectations for how the treble winners might start the new campaign, but Haaland clearly doesn’t watch his manager’s pre-match news conferences. It took the Norwegian striker just four minutes to score his first goal on the Premier League’s opening night, and by the time he walked off at half-time he had two. He was substituted 10 minutes from time with the game over at 3-0 and his job done.
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Haaland has now scored opening day braces in each of his last four seasons — twice for Borussia Dortmund and twice for City — so it really shouldn’t be a surprise. You’d think people would learn not to write him off after drawing a blank in the Community Shield.
“It was deja vu,” said Guardiola afterwards. “Last season against Liverpool [in the Community Shield] he didn’t score and then against West Ham [in the first league game] he scored two goals. Today was quite similar.”
Listening to Guardiola speak at the CFA on Thursday, he gave the impression his team were underprepared and undercooked ahead of the trip to Turf Moor, but City are still the team to beat and Haaland is still the most dangerous centre-forward in the league. He scored 52 in 54 games last season — 36 in 35 games in the Premier League — and on this evidence, you wouldn’t put it past him to better it this time. Guardiola says it’s “impossible” but you wouldn’t bet against City repeating the treble, either. There’s a reason they’re already favourites to win everything.
Erling Haaland is at the double ⚽️⚽️
— Premier League USA (@PLinUSA) August 11, 2023
“To come here to a promoted side is always so tricky,” said Guardiola. “The first game against a newly promoted team will always be difficult. They give everything but we were fortunate to find a goal so quick. We started well. We found a goal, we struggled a bit after. We gave away balls, our pass created problems but after a while we played much, much better.”
It wasn’t a night when everything went City’s way. Defender Rúben Dias was ruled out with concussion and Kevin De Bruyne was forced off midway through the first half with an injury, but a dangerous game against a newly-promoted side in front of their home fans was navigated with minimal fuss. Josko Gvardiol, the second most expensive defender in the world after his €90m ($98m) move from RB Leipzig, was only needed for the final 12 minutes.
Burnley, whose substitute Anass Zaroury was sent off in stoppage time, had their moments and there was enough there to suggest Vincent Kompany’s side have every chance of staying in the division. With an average age of 23 years and 206 days, Burnley fielded the youngest ever starting XI in Premier League history which also included five new signings, and the hope will be that they will grow into the challenge of turning Championship dominance into top-flight survival. Kompany will be disappointed to concede from two set pieces but few teams, regardless of experience, can live with the ruthlessness of Haaland.
After 35 minutes, the Norwegian had touched the ball nine times and scored twice. His second was a thing of beauty, whipping his finish into the top corner with his left foot from a standing start. Haaland will score plenty more this season, but he might not get a better one than that. You could tell by the smirk on his face as he celebrated that he liked it.
It wasn’t enough to completely please Guardiola, though, who was involved in a heated discussion with his No.9 as they walked off at half-time and a television camera which got too close was pushed away by the City manager.
“Erling wanted the ball immediately and Bernardo [Silva] didn’t give it,” explained Guardiola. I understand Erling, he wants the ball, but Bernardo made the right decision.” Guardiola was happier at full-time, having seen Rodri score from close range in the second half to make the game safe. “We are still away from the best form,” he added.
“We have to try not to drop points in this period and how you solve this lack of preparation was the mentality. The first games are so important to see how our vibes are.”
The worry for the rest of the league is that this is usually the time when City are at their most vulnerable. A team conditioned to finish the season strongly rather than lead from the front, they dropped seven points in their first 10 games last season — the same number as they dropped in their final 17 games and even that included a draw and a defeat when the title had already been won.
Newcastle at the Etihad Stadium on Aug. 19 will be a better gauge of where City are at, but this was an ominous start for the champions and their star striker.