In recent years, as football’s two giants, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, started to slow down, we mourned the end of a protracted golden age of goalscoring and breathless attacking football.
Such musings were premature. Of course, players with the amazing skills of these two men are a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, but as Messi and Ronaldo experience the latter stages of their careers, we are witnessing one of the finest goalscoring eras in football history.
Last season’s goals were rich, generous and dazzling. One could almost feel exhausted. Watch Mo Salah pull off another sensational run and finish! It’s Robert Lewandowski again, the right man in the right place, the ball goes into the net, destined to break more records! There’s Karim Benzema, who is almost single-handedly hauling Real Madrid to another Champions League triumph and another La Liga title, scoring with more scintillating skill and pace at 34 than he did for Lyon as a 20-year-old sensation . There’s Kylian Mbappe accelerating like an Olympic sprinter to hit a Messi throughball!
The upcoming season could be even more amazing as two youngsters with incredible skills step up. I’m talking about Liverpool’s new striker, Uruguayan Darwin Nunez, 22, and Norway’s Erling Haaland, 21, newly signed from Manchester City.
Nunez has it all. He is powerful and fast. Its finish is supernaturally clinical. As a player for Benfica, he gave his new club a harrowing spell in the recently ended Champions League. He’s 6ft 2in tall but moves like someone whose center of gravity is much lower, changing direction and outpacing defenders. As much as I hate to see the talismanic Sadio Mane leave the Reds, Nunez will add a new dimension to Liverpool’s already incredible attacking game.
Haaland, on the other hand, has everything and a lot more. The man is a ghost. Nobody – not Salah or Benzema or Lewandowski – can slip behind the defenders, slip into the blind spots in the box like Haaland does.
A towering bundle of lean muscle with fantastic pace and game intelligence, Haaland is perhaps the most clinical finisher playing the game today. His goal record is hard to believe. He first gained global attention as a 19-year-old at Red Bull Salzburg when he scored a hat-trick on his Champions League debut, followed by goals in his next four European games and became the first teenager to score in five consecutive games Goal scored Champions League games.
The next season he graduated as the Champions League top scorer with Borussia Dortmund, the German club that has become the new graduation school for fine young football talent. He is also the fastest in history with 100 top-flight goals scored in 146 games for club and country, beating Mbappe (180 games), Messi (200) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (245).
It is perhaps no coincidence that Haaland, so good at ghosting into space behind defenders, was coached in his formative years by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose poaching and sense of positioning enabled Manchester United to wriggle out of many difficult situations, when the club was at the peak of its forces.
Haaland’s father, Alf-Inge Haaland or Alfie, was also a Manchester City player. The man – basically a log neck and a rock-like jaw on a muscle barrel – terrorized the Premier League in the late ’90s, playing as a defender and midfielder for Nottingham, Leeds and eventually City. Alfie’s career was famously ended by a horrific deliberate tackle by Roy Keane in a Manchester derby in 2001 (Keane hit his right leg with both cleats, although it was technically a left knee injury that ended Alfie’s football meant). It’s a bit ironic because in most other situations it was Alfie who threatened to end other people’s careers with his violent tackle.
If anyone still has nostalgia for the “good old days” when fighting laws was more lax, please check out the uncomfortable video City released showing Haaland and his dad watching old clips of Alfie playing. As clip after clip shows his father cutting forward, Haaland has a shocked expression on his face. Alfie has the smile of someone who, deep down, knows they were wrong but chose to face it as if it were nothing.
At one point, when Alfie giggles at a particularly awful tackle, Haaland lets out a disapproving grunt. “You would have ended my career,” he says to his father.