The best players in world football make a statement when the eyes of the world are upon them. It’s what they do. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have done so on a frankly obscene number of occasions, while Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe followed suit with a hat-trick against Messi’s Barcelona at the Nou Camp in February.
And while Borussia Dortmund frontman Erling Haaland stands on 33 goals in 32 appearances this season and 49 in 50 overall for the Bundesliga heavyweights, his chance to make the biggest statement of his short career so far presents itself tonight in a trip to Manchester City.
Dortmund take on the Premier League leaders, poised to secure a third league title in the past four seasons in the coming weeks, at the Etihad in the first leg of their quarter-final clash tonight (8pm). The German giants come into it shrouded in doubt and drama.
A 2-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt at the weekend leaves Dortmund seven points adrift of fourth place in the Bundesliga with seven games left of the campaign. Having won just four of 12 league matches since mid-January, the Yellow Blacks appear unlikely to launch a late charge into the Champions League spots.
And so their best hope of playing in the lucrative European Cup next season might be winning it for just the second time in their history, and the first time since 1996.
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Their path to doing so could hardly be more difficult. Two legs against Man City, arguably the best team in Europe, and a potential semi-final showdown with German conquerors and holders Bayern Munich or Mbappe’s PSG.
Get through those and you’re faced with either Real Madrid, Liverpool, Chelsea or Porto in the final, with just the 21 European Cups between the quartet.
But Haaland is the calibre of player who can fire an out-of-sorts Dortmund to European glory – and tonight, and next week’s second leg, is a massive chance to prove he’s ready to rival Mbappe for Messi and Ronaldo’s soon-to-be-vacant throne.
City have yet to get past this stage of the Champions League in four attempts under Pep Guardiola and while they are massive favourites to progress – Haaland is a potent enough threat to dump them out near single-handedly.
It’s already pretty obvious that Haaland is going to be one of the next generation’s leading talents, but in his attempts to emulate the record-breaking feats of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, tonight is his opportunity to rubber-stamp himself as a player truly at the next level.
City boss Guardiola, who managed Messi at Barcelona, has made it clear he’s a massive fan of the player, as the Citizens consider a summer swoop in the next transfer window.
“To score that number of goals at his age is not easy to find in the past, honestly. He’s 20 years old and the numbers speak for themselves,” the Catalan coach declared on Monday.
“He’s a fantastic striker, everyone knows it. A blind guy would realise he’s a good striker, it’s not necessary to be a manager to realise it.”
Dortmund want at least £127million (€150m) if they are to part ways with the Norwegian this summer, it is though. Manchester United and Chelsea are among City’s rivals for his signature, with Real Madrid and Barcelona also keen.
“I don’t know,” said Guardiola when quizzed about potentially signing the Scandinavian centre-forward. “I understand completely people ask the day before and this week of Haaland because of course he’s an exceptional striker.
“But you understand it’s not appropriate for me to talk about a player from another club.”
United, who once again find themselves sat at home watching the TV when it comes to the Champions League’s most enthralling final rounds, will be among those keeping a close eye on Haaland’s exploits against City, the former club of his father Alf-Inge.
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows Haaland as well as anyone, having managed him at Molde a few years back, and the Norwegian coach would love his towering countryman to lead the line at Old Trafford from next season onwards.
Tonight, and in the second leg against City, Haaland can prove that he would be able not just to come to Manchester and score goals for fun but that he could help United to catch their noisy neighbours, who have collected major honours galore during the Red Devils’ post-Sir Alex Ferguson decline.
Since the Scot retired with United as champions in 2013, they haven’t got near City. Their best season since last winning the league was when they came second to their rivals under Jose Mourinho in 2017-18. They ended a league-record 19 points adrift.
United are currently 14 points behind City, albeit having played one match less, but have made progress this term. Next year though the onus will be on them to put together a sustained challenge for the top-flight crown. Solskjaer’s long-term future may even depend on it.
Having Haaland up top putting away chances created by Bruno Fernandes and co. would significantly improve their prospects of getting the better of City and what is expected to be a rejuvenated Liverpool, who have been wrecked by injuries this term.
Haaland won’t come to United on the cheap – at least this summer (he has a £64million release clause in his contract that becomes active in 2022). On top of the transfer fee, that will be at least £127m, his agent Mino Raiola and father Alf-Inge are said to want £17m (€20m) apiece for helping facilitating a move.
Then there’s the player’s contract, with it having been alleged that Raiola wants to get Haaland on a £600,000-a-week salary at his next club – which would see him bank £127.5m across a five-year contract.
Add the transfer fee, the wages and the fees paid to Raiola and Haaland Snr and you’re talking £289m. That’s before thinking about goal bonuses and trophy-winning payments. It is an eye-watering amount.
But against City, Haaland can make a case that he would be worth every penny. Fire Dortmund past the English champions elect, or at least make them work incredibly hard for a semi-final spot, and United will be doubly eager to sign him up. Whether they can pitch themselves as a better destination than City is another matter entirely.