Will Haaland signing finally push Manchester City over the hump in Europe?
The heir to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. A future Ballon d’Or winner. The man to lead Manchester City to that elusive Champions League title.
Erling Haaland is being depicted as these things — and many more — now that the striker is seemingly on his way to the English Premier League champions in a blockbuster move.
It’s quite the burden of expectation to carry for a player who only turns 22 in July. He certainly has the talent to live up to his extraordinary billing, but is City and Haaland really the dream ticket?
Potentially, yes. City creates more opportunities than any other team in the Premier League, has a slew of attacking midfielders — led by the peerless Kevin De Bruyne — putting chances on a plate, and is coached by the one of the most astute minds in world soccer in Pep Guardiola.
Even playing without a recognized striker this season, City has league-high 89 goals and could yet reach the landmark of 100 for the third time under Guardiola since his arrival in 2016.
Haaland, meanwhile, is coming to England on the back of scoring nearly a goal a game (85 in 88) with Borussia Dortmund in Germany.
What, really, can go wrong?
“Certainly I believe it makes Man City — one of, if not the best team in the world — even better,” said Leeds manager Jesse Marsch, the American who coached Haaland at Salzburg in Austria.
A few doubts could be raised, however.
Yet to be seen is how Haaland stacks up playing week in, week out against teams who deploy ultra-defensive tactics — in modern-day soccer parlance, “park the bus” — which is the scenario City often finds itself in.
Dortmund might be one of the best teams in Germany but it had a porous defense, so opponents didn’t just sit back — they tried to keep their attacking options open.
Watch YouTube compilations of Haaland and his standout goals to see him use his pace and strength to drive forward in space and deliver clinical finishes. He might not be afforded such luxury at City when faced with packed defenses.
In that respect, Haaland faces the same challenge as Romelu Lukaku, who has not looked the same rampaging player at Chelsea as he was at Inter Milan the previous two seasons.
Then there’s the relentless pressing that Guardiola will demand of Haaland, a side to the game that the striker carries out at Dortmund but still might not come naturally to him.
It took Sergio Aguero some time to adapt to playing under Guardiola, to doing more of the dirty work when it comes to harrying defenders, closing off passing lanes and tracking back.
The same could happen to Haaland.
And potentially linked to that is Haaland’s increasingly concerning injury record, with what Dortmund tends to vaguely describe as “muscular problems” causing him to miss a third of the team’s league games this season. Similar problems limited his availability for club and country the season before.
There’s an argument to say Haaland hasn’t really turned it on this season, before which his longest scoreless run for Dortmund was two games. He has failed to score in seven of his last nine Bundesliga appearances for Dortmund, even if 21 goals in 23 games is still impressive.
Guardiola’s ability to get the best out of Robert Lewandowski at Bayern Munich and Aguero at City — two out-and-out center forwards — should end any concerns that might have lingered from his failure to incorporate Zlatan Ibrahimovic into his great Barcelona team.
A clash of egos between Guardiola and Ibrahimovic as well as the presence of Messi, who preferred to play centrally, likely were the factors behind that relationship breakdown.
Harry Kane and Ronaldo were pursued, to various lengths, by City last offseason. But it’s safe to say Guardiola has got the striker he wanted, the player who can give City a different way of playing, a presence in the penalty area, someone who — if all goes well — can shoot the team to titles for the next decade, long after Guardiola has left.
“We’re not going to buy (a striker) … if they’re not going to give us something special,” Guardiola said a few weeks ago.
Haaland is that special. And who knows, his arrival could yet convince Guardiola to stay on beyond next season, when his contract is due to expire.
That might yet depend on whether City can win the Champions League for the first time, and on the seventh attempt under Guardiola. Domestic trophies are no longer enough to satisfy expectations on them, no matter how highly those at the club value winning the Premier League.
Having Haaland around can only help them in their quest to crack Europe.
AP Sports Writers James Ellingworth and Ciarán Fahey contributed to this story.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
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