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‘Unbelievable’ Erling Haaland a ‘perfect fit’ at Manchester City: Ilkay Gundogan

LONDON: Manchester City may be seething after their surprise exit from the Carabao Cup this week, with the team missing out on a semifinal date with Newcastle following their 2-0 defeat at Southampton.

But they have the perfect opportunity to lift the mood on Saturday in the 189th derby against neighbors Manchester United.

When the two sides last met at the Etihad in October, the 6-3 scoreline saw City end up as convincing winners, with only two late Anthony Martial goals sparing United further embarrassment.

Erling Haaland and Phil Foden both claimed hat-tricks — only the third time that two players from the same team had both claimed three goals each in a Premier League match.

For striker Haaland, it was also an historic third treble haul in successive home games after three against both Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace.

Since his arrival from Borussia Dortmund, Haaland has certainly enjoyed his debut season in English football and has become the smiling assassin with 27 goals so far.

According to City captain Ilkay Gundogan, the Norwegian forward, 22, is a combination of fearsome and fun.

“Erling’s a great guy, on and off the pitch — very determined but has a great character,” said the Germany international, who also joined Pep Guardiola’s side from Dortmund in 2016.

“He’s fitted perfectly — no integration time, no problem since he came. From day one, Erling was there and part of everything. In the way he speaks with everyone, he’s a perfect fit. He tells some good jokes, likes to laugh and joke around. He’s funny, so beloved with his teammates and the staff.

“The group we have, it’s quite easy for anyone joining us.”

United were among the clubs who pursued Leeds-born Haaland’s signature last year, but he chose City, where his father, Alfie, also played.

“Erling could have gone anywhere he wanted, but he chose to come here,” Gundogan told Arab News exclusively.

“A lot of the reasons were probably connected to the way we play, the way we approach the game, the manager and the players we have.

“This makes it attractive for every footballer in Europe, to get the chance to one day play for Manchester City. This shows how much the club has grown over the years.”

City have grown to the extent that they have now deposed United as the side setting the highest of standards.

Where United once ruled English football under Sir Alex Ferguson — winning 13 Premier League titles before the legendary manager retired in 2013 — it is now Guardiola’s men who are dominant.

City are bidding for a third successive championship and now stand second — five points behind Arsenal and four clear of Erik ten Hag’s United.

After the disappointing defeat at Southampton, Gundogan urged his side to respond to a “wake-up call” and show that they still have the same hunger and desire for honors as before.

“The last few years were special,” said Gundogan, 32. “The club started a big project when the owners from Abu Dhabi took over and wanted to achieve what we have achieved in the last few years.

“So I think the club is in a very good position. The club is led by brilliant people and there’s so much more potential, so much more to come.

“In terms of the way we play, we are up there, yes, with the great clubs. But in terms of what we have achieved, I don’t think so, not so far.

“I think there needs to come a Champions League at one point to get that one last lift in international level for the club — that’s the only piece missing so far. Sooner or later I am confident it will happen.”

Having agonizingly lost the final to Chelsea in 2021 and then a semifinal last season to Real Madrid, Haaland was seen as the man to help fulfill City’s Champions League dream.

And Gundogan agrees.

“I’m quite sure he was brought in to make a difference,” the midfielder said.

“We were probably missing someone like him for a couple of years, especially when Sergio Aguero was out for a while. We had to adapt. I played a false nine in some games and it is different to have someone right there like him.

“Erling is the finisher in the box. With his presence, you feel where the danger might be and he’s already there. He just has the sense to score the goals.

“If he just keeps continuing like this, he is already going to be there pretty soon to be competing for Ballon d’Ors or whatever.

“The thing with Erling, I don’t know if he even needs to get better to get that. His main job as a striker is scoring goals and he does that — the way he has started here is unbelievable.

“I don’t doubt Erling will stay the same and doesn’t want to imitate someone or follow in someone else’s path — I sense he wants to make his own path with his own personality.

“I don’t think there needs to be much change from what people expect him to be. To score goals and have the numbers is the first thing people look at when they talk about strikers. Already they (Erling’s numbers) are incredible and I think they will probably stay the same.

“We feel he can make the difference in these big games and in the Champions League, which is, of course, a hope again this season that we can win it.”

Few games are bigger than the Manchester derby and bragging rights as well as crucial Premier League points will be at stake when United play host at Old Trafford, and look to avoid a fourth successive loss to City.

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