Brentford 1-3 Man City: Foden treble leads rally to close gap

Phil Foden celebrates after completing his hat-trick. Photograph: David Klein/Reuters

It had been billed as Erling Haaland’s grand comeback to the Manchester City starting XI. Perhaps there could be a shootout with Ivan Toney, the Brentford striker, who is also ­re-establishing himself after rather longer on the sidelines in the wake of his betting ban.

For a while, there was the ­glimmer that Neal Maupay could upstage them both when he gave Brentford a shock lead midway through a first half made memorable by the ­defiance of Mark Flekken in the home goal. But by the end, it was all about another attacker whose talent can seem utterly irresistible on nights like these.

The Premier League title is back in City’s hands after Liverpool’s defeat at Arsenal on Sunday – right where they like it. Phil Foden had the ball at his feet in front of goal, even his head at one point, and that is exactly where he likes it.

Foden does not score many with his head but he did so here to put City 2-1 up. He had got the equaliser – chest, bounce and finish – while he saved the best for the hat-trick, an explosion on to Haaland’s lay-off, each touch perfect, giving nobody close to him inside the area the ­slightest sniff.

City are on an ominous roll, ­winning all seven matches since their victorious return from the Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia.

Pep Guardiola said recently that he can feel the desire of his players to win and keep on winning. ­Brentford had done the double over City last season but nobody in the red and white stripes could stop Foden. Will anybody be able to do likewise with his team? The question pounds with increasing force.

Brentford’s Mark Flekken denies Erling Haaland, who was making his first start since December. Photograph: Nigel Keene/ProSports/Shutterstock

The thing with City is that ­resistance can seem futile. Few have resisted as gamely as Flekken did ­during an extraordinary first half ­display, the statistics showing he made eight saves, the majority of them crackers. He even got the assist for Maupay’s goal. By full-time, though, he was a footnote.

Maupay’s goal was a bolt for the sky blues, stunning in its surprise value because at that stage, Flekken’s goal was under siege. Everything changed – briefly – when he launched a long ball forward, although maybe the real assist ought to have been ­credited to Toney. He set a screen against Nathan Aké, basketball-style, which allowed Flekken’s clearance to keep on ­running to Maupay, who rolled past Ederson.

Maupay seems to take a ­disproportionate delight in winding up opponents. He would clash with Rúben Dias on a defensive corner, earn a yellow card for a late crunch into Rodri and have lengthy exchange of views with Guardiola in the ­closing stages, after seemingly saying ­something to incense Kyle Walker. Nobody can say that Maupay is not on fire in front of goal. He has now scored in five consecutive games. Maybe he should stick to that.

Guardiola had been delighted to give Haaland his first start since a foot fracture in early December. For the first time since the opening game of the league season, the City manager had Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne in at the outset. It is all part of the ­narrative that has the club ready to bolt for the finish line.

Brentford’s poor results have been well-documented – it is now seven defeats in eight, although they have deserved more with their ­performances – and Flekken was called upon to deny Julián Álvarez twice and Walker inside the first 15 minutes. Those in front of him put their bodies on the line, one block from Ethan Pinnock to thwart ­Haaland on seven minutes especially vital.

Flekken saved one-on-one against Haaland after a loose Vitaly Janelt backpass and he did well to keep out a Josko Gvardiol blast, while City had other near-misses in the first half, including when a goalbound ­Bernardo Silva shot hit Mads ­Roerslev to fly wide.

Brentford threatened before the interval when Ederson clawed away Sergio Reguilón’s cross-cum-shot and Dias needed to make an ­important intervention to block from Janelt with Ederson off his line. Foden, though, finally restored parity in stoppage time after Pinnock’s poor headed clearance from a De Bruyne cross.

Against this City, it can feel ­relentless, inevitable and they went in front on 53 minutes; after all of Brentford’s hard work at the back, it was another soft concession. Nobody closed down De Bruyne and nobody tracked Foden’s run. The cross was lovely. Foden strained his neck muscles to generate the power and accuracy.

Brentford refused to stop believing. They created the chances to equalise. Christian Nørgaard was denied by a big Dias block and Toney put too much on a side-on volley when well placed. Foden would kill them off.

“Only Phil will decide his limits,” Guardiola said. “How he moves in small spaces, his impact, you have the feeling he can score. It’s difficult to find both the movement and after being like a knife.”