Which of the Premier League’s big four may come to regret not going all out to get Norwegian striking sensation Erling Haaland this summer?
Along with Kylian Mbappe, the 21-year-old Borussia Dortmund forward is football’s hottest young property and while Haaland stayed put in the Bundesliga in this summer's transfer window there will unquestionably be a mad scramble among the game’s ultra-clubs for his signature in 2022.
And whichever three of the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool are not left holding the trophy when the music stops in May, the unfortunate trio will probably wish they had thrown the financial kitchen sink at the forward to lure him a year earlier.
Chelsea had a good look before being frightened off, even with their resources, by the potentially frightening package being demanded by Haaland’s agent Mino Raiola, opting instead to bring in Romelu Lukaku for £97 million
The numbers being talked about were staggering. A £40m salary on a five year-deal, a £34m agent’s fee for Raiola plus a salary for the agent, making for a total of around £275m – and all that even before the £150m that Dortmund were asking for the player.
But Haaland showed once again for Norway what all the fuss is about on Wednesday night up against Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk, back playing for the Netherlands for the first time in almost a year following the ruptured cruciate ligaments suffered in the Merseyside derby in October of last year.
A ball lumped fairly aimlessly by Stefan Strandberg into the area, leaving some the Netherlands defenders looking around in vain for an offside flag, saw Haaland bring it down with a great first touch and with a hint of fortune the ball dribbled into the far corner despite Van Dijk’s desperate lunge.
The threat shouldn’t have come as any surprise to the Netherlands. The Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, in his first game of a third spell as national boss, uttered some prophetic words in the build-up. He had said: “Haaland has the ability to cleanly kill the game with one shot.” And Van Dijk himself stated: “He is one of the best strikers in the world.”
With dad Alf-Inge, the former Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Manchester City midfielder, watching on from the stands in the sparsely populated Ullevaal Stadion in Oslo, Haaland’s added to personal figures which are already highly impressive.
His strike on Wednesday makes it eight goals in 13 games for Norway, and you can set that alongside the 29 in 27 games for RB Salzburg which persuaded Dortmund to snap him up. He now has 63 goals in 64 games for the German side too.
Barcelona for once look out of the race, and if Real Madrid get Mbappe for no fee but astronomic wages next summer after Paris Saint Germain incredibly turned down a bid of £189m for what looks like a single season, they may be okay up front. So it looks set to be an all-English battle for Haaland, with City and United appearing most in need of his services long-term, and also having the right level of financial muscle.
The extra factor that makes moves for Haaland inevitable are reports that, unlike this summer, in 2022 he has a release clause that may see any fee paid a lot nearer £70m.
In the meantime Haaland, along with Norway captain Martin Odegaard of Arsenal, is bidding to lead his national side to a first World Cup qualification for 24 years. Manager Stale Solbakken played in that France '98 tournament, also the last World Cup at which Scotland appeared. Norway were in the same group as the Scots that year, finishing above them and just behind Brazil in the group phase before being eliminated by Italy in the last 16.
After a lively opening on Wednesday, culminating in Haaland’s opener, the match settled down with Van Gaal attempting to exert a tactical stranglehold and the Netherlands enjoying far more possession. Another Norwegian superstar, reigning world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, would have heartily approved of the strategy.
The Netherlands, of course, despite a far richer tradition in major tournaments than their hosts, are also looking to right some wrongs having missed out on the last World Cup in Russia. And there is still some hangover from the bitter disappointment of crashing out to the Czech Republic in Euro 2020 at the last-16 stage after storming through the group phase.
Even before he scored, Haaland - sent clear by another impressive youngster Jans Petter Hauge - had seen a great opportunity well saved by Dutch goalkeeper and debutant Justin Bijlow of Feyenoord, preferred to Tim Krul of Norwich. But Davy Klaassen had levelled before half-time.
As the Netherlands started to cede some control a brilliant Norway counter-attack after 64 minutes saw Odegaard running at a back-pedalling Dutch defence. He fed Haaland at just the right moment but the striker’s thunderous shot came crashing back off the post.
The good news for both of these nations was a 97th-minute equaliser for Montenegro against Turkey, who looked poised to go three points clear in a highly competitive Group G. Instead, one point covers all four teams after four games, with the Netherlands hosting Turkey next week.