Erling Haaland undid his ponytail and released his flowing blond locks moments before finishing off Arsenal in a purported Premier League title decider that turned into a procession for Manchester City.
The defending champions certainly let their hair down at Etihad Stadium with a swaggering performance that left little doubt about who the top team in England is.
Not that there has ever really been a debate.
Backed by the riches of Abu Dhabi and led by arguably the world’s best coach in Pep Guardiola, City has established an era of domination in the Premier League that is starting to mirror that of France (with Paris Saint-Germain) and Germany (with Bayern Munich).
Complete the job — and City is the big favorite after Wednesday’s 4-1 victory that trimmed the gap on Arsenal to two points with two games in hand — and the team will have won three straight titles and five of the last six in supposedly the world’s most competitive league.
OK, there are question marks surrounding the foundations of this remarkable trophy run, with City facing more than 100 charges of alleged wrongdoing and failures to co-operate with a Premier League investigation into the club’s finances.
For the moment, though, that’s with the lawyers.
On the field, City continues to swat away all-comers with a thrilling style of play that has become more varied since the arrival of Haaland, who rivals PSG forward Kylian Mbappe as the best striker in the world.
No wonder Arsenal’s young players have stumbled with City — propelled by Haaland’s goals and Guardiola’s strategy — chasing them down with a now-familiar winning run.
The league title looks to be heading to the Etihad once again. And the treble — Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup — appears to be well within City’s grasp.
“They were exceptional, and it’s extremely difficult to reach that level,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said.
It’s a level that might even allow City to break new ground in the Champions League, a trophy the club has never won. A two-legged semifinal meeting with Real Madrid awaits next month when City might yet meet its match, given the Spanish team’s aura and history in the competition.
But City looks a more rounded and dangerous team than the one that fell just short against Madrid in the semifinals last season.
Much of that is down to Haaland, who now has 33 goals in the Premier League — a record in a 38-game campaign — and 49 in all competitions after netting the fourth against Arsenal. City has been transformed by the presence of the Norway striker, who showed against Arsenal that there is much more to his game than simply scoring goals.
He also had two assists for Kevin De Bruyne, the star of the show and a player who has made a habit of coming good in the final months of the season.
As if opposition defenses don’t have enough to worry about with Haaland alone, De Bruyne — English soccer’s player of the year in two of the last three seasons — has burst into life with three goals and five assists in his last four league games. His link-up play with Haaland is getting better by the week and he was unstoppable against Arsenal in his roving midfield role.
Whether De Bruyne gets that much space against opponents who will sit back against City, like Fulham and West Ham in the team’s next two games, is another matter. In that case, he will rely on his delivery into Haaland from deeper areas to make the difference.
That’s the thing with City: Every base is covered. The sight of Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez coming off the bench against tired legs highlighted the strength in depth, with currently only Nathan Ake unavailable because of injury.
City can finally take the lead off Arsenal by winning at Fulham on Saturday — Arsenal doesn’t play again until Tuesday, at home against Chelsea — and the big hope for Arteta’s team is that City gets sidetracked by those games against Madrid on May 9 and 17. A trip to Everton comes in between them, while away matches against Brighton and Brentford to finish the league season could prove difficult.
Then again, Arsenal has the toughest game left for either of the title challengers — at Newcastle on May 7 — so City could yet get further respite.
“We have been through tough moments and tough situations at this stage in the season in the past, so we know what to do in certain scenarios,” City defender John Stones said. “It’s just experience, and everyone still has that hunger.”
Wealth, outrageous talent, a winning mentality. No wonder teams are finding it virtually impossible to stop City, as Arsenal has just discovered.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
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