After a pair of instinctive finishes, it was a burst of pace and the trusted left foot that delivered the final blow. On the night where Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne were reunited in Manchester City’s attack, a hat-trick from Phil Foden against Brentford brought the champions to within two points of leaders Liverpool as Pep Guardiola’s side completed another away comeback in the Premier League. City will return to the top if they win their game in hand – which is also against Brentford in two weeks, and after breaking the spell that Thomas Frank’s side held over them last season, the champions have another reason to be encouraged as they threaten to ease away in the title race.
Brentford were the only team to do the double over City in the last campaign – Guardiola has never lost to the same opposition three times in a row in the league, but Neal Maupay’s opener may have had the Catalan thinking that Frank was about to repeat his trick. For a fourth away game in a row in the Premier League, City trailed. But like at Newcastle, Everton and Luton, the champions came from behind to win. A double from Foden either side of half time turned the match around and broke Brentford’s resilience. An inspired performance from goalkeeper Mark Flekken, which in the first half included nine saves and a long-range assist for Maupay’s opener, was quickly undone by Foden’s star turn.
He completed his hat-trick with a flourish: running onto Haaland’s lay-off, he eased past Ethan Pinnock and into the box with a casual burst of acceleration before finishing cooly past Flekken. It was controlled brilliance from the 23-year-old, and fitting too that he would provide the goals even as De Bruyne and Haaland started together for the first time since the opening day of the season five months ago. After all, it has been the goals of others who have City where they are now, not their two standout stars from last year’s Treble campaign.
It was Foden who helped inspire City’s comeback at Goodison Park just after Christmas and he produced another talismanic display here. First Foden punished the first lapse of concentration in the Brentford defence when he, in the third and final minute of first-half stoppage time, pounced on a poor clearance from Pinnock to steer City level. Then, shortly after the restart, Foden produced a deft touch from De Bruyne’s inswinging cross to guide his header past Flekken. Finally, it was Haaland’s turn to provide the assist for Foden’s third.
With the comeback complete, it was a familiar show of resilience from Guardiola’s side, which continued another ominous run: if in previous seasons City have been carried to the title by hitting their stride and reeling off a winning streak in the spring, theirs this season now stands at nine in a row. Most alarmingly for Liverpool and Arsenal was the sight of Haaland and De Bruyne starting in tandem while the likes of Foden and Julian Alvarez are in such devastating form.
Meanwhile De Bruyne continued his spectacular return: now with three assists in as many games since his game-changing introduction from the bench in last month’s comeback win at Newcastle. But if the Premier League’s assist king has resumed where he left off last season, last year’s golden boot winner may need to be afforded some time. His late lay-off for Foden aside, Haaland was quiet as he returned to lead City’s attack; the striker denied on his one clear opportunity when Vitaly Janelt’s misplaced backpass sent him through on goal. Haaland took the ball in his stride and looked for the far corner but was denied by Flekken.
Though that was also the story of the first half, where it seemed as if Flekken would stop everything. The goalkeeper also produced excellent saves to keep out two superb curling shots from Alvarez and a rising, long-range strike from Kyle Walker. To add to his display, Flekken also added an assist, as Frank turned to his set-piece playbook to briefly stun Guardiola’s side. There are many routes to goal after surviving the opening 20 minutes of play, Brentford chose the direct one: Ivan Toney eased Nathan Ake out of the way to create a channel of space for Maupay to run onto Flekken’s punt. With Maupay timing his run to stay onside, he steadied to finish past Ederson and score for the fifth consecutive game.
But after a brief period where Brentford frustrated City, it soon become apparent why Flekken had failed to keep a Premier League clean sheet in his previous 11 appearances – and why Brentford have conceded at least two goals in their previous seven. When Pinnock failed to clear De Bruyne’s cross, Foden controlled and shot through Pinnock’s legs to finally beat Flekken and give City a route back into the game.
For a while, Brentford continued to make it awkward for City. Few sides enjoy a free ride in this corner of west London and Guardiola’s team had to survive some nervy moments. After falling behind, Christian Norgaard’s goal-bound shot was blocked by Ruben Dias before Josko Gvardiol stopped Maupay’s volley, and Toney volleyed over at the back post. Ederson was not faced with a shot to save but was made to look hurried and uncomfortable from Brentford’s pressure. But then Foden eased clear to add the third, just as City are threatening to do in the title race.