Pomp and ceremony will greet this week’s return of the Champions League’s group stages.
An alluring collection of the globe’s elite club sides. Goal-getters of historical hunger in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. That theme music.
What’s not to like? Well, the crushing predictability, for one, of the opening stanza.
Of the eight groups, only an enticing F jam-packed with Barca, Borussia Dortmund and resurgent Inter Milan truly inspires. There is also an argument that Kai Havertz’s Bayer Levkerkusen may bloody Juventus or Atletico Madrid in D.
Elsewhere, processions seem inevitable as football fans patiently await February’s commencement of the stirring knockouts.
For those searching out a shot of excitement, a prodigiously talented man-child from Scandinavia offers salvation.
Red Bull Salzburg’s Erling Braut Haaland boasts one of modern football’s rarest commodities – a sense of the unknown.
Sport’s saturated mainstream ensured a clamour grew around Messi before his 2004 breakout at Camp Nou. The subsequent proliferation of social media helped ensure widespread anticipation preceded Kylian Mbappe’s 2016/17 Champions League breakthrough at Monaco.
This is not the case for Haaland.
The Norway teenager is in possession of a supreme talent, on the verge of going supernova. Witnessing whether the centre forward begins realising this on the grandest stage, starting with Tuesday’s trip to Belgium top-flight holders Genk, or is shown up as a flat-track bully should rouse the curiosities of all supporters jaded by the same-old scorelines and goalscorers.
Of those familiar with his surname, many will only recollect father Alf-Inge’s exploits in England from 1993-2003 and that Roy Keane horror challenge.
Only a select group au fait with Scandinavian football can regale tales of his debut league goal for Molde off the substitutes bench aged 16. Or the four-goal haul in 21 minutes against previously unbeaten leaders Brann in July 2018 that caused then manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – who knows a thing or two about what makes a premium striker – to draw, now admittedly uncomfortable, comparisons to Romelu Lukaku.
‘Super-agent’ Mino Raiola’s involvement in January’s switch to Austria – reportedly eschewing advances from the likes of United in a pursuit of first-team football – speaks further of his ability.
The 19-year-old’s staggering nine-goal salvo against Honduras during the summer’s Under-20 World Cup was then enough to earn the Golden Boot. Back with employers Salzburg, a terrorising of defenders to make Didier Drogba proud has produced 14 goals in eight appearances.
Redolent of the Ivory Coast icon, Haaland possesses the rare marriage of raw physicality and delicate technique.
A searing burst of pace and propensity to work a yard of space saw him spark danger on the left during this month’s senior international bow against Malta.
Even at 196 centimetres tall and 87 kilograms in weight, the vast majority of his goals are deft strikes from a feathered left foot. Indeed, a win percentage for aerial duels of just 41.2 per cent in the 2019/20 Austrian Bundesliga necessitates improvement.
The weekend hat-trick versus Hartberg featured a pair of dead-eyed one-on-one finishes, plus imaginative back-heel from a prone position. Even when his frame puts him place to notch a header, August’s stylish body twist against St Polten makes them truly memorable.
Haaland has the pedigree to succeed. Just like contemporary Mbappe.
There are, however, no guarantees in football. Luuk de Jong’s inability to fire anywhere but the Netherlands is just one of many examples of when vast promise goes unfulfilled.
“On my debut in the Champions League, I will have goosebumps,” Haaland told en24.news on Sunday. “It is a dream that will come true, I will enjoy every minute.”
The prospect of the uninitiated feeling similarly enthused after his Genk run-out is one to grasp tight.
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