Over the last couple of years, as the two football giants Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo began to slow down, we mourned because a protracted golden age of goal-scoring and breathless attacking football was coming to an end.
Such ruminations were premature. Of course players with the astounding skills of these two men are a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, but as Messi and Ronaldo play out the final stages of their careers, we are witnessing one of the finest goal-scoring eras in football history .
Last season’s goals were rich, generous and mindboggling. One could almost feel jaded. Look at Mo Salah pull off another sensational run and finish! There goes Robert Lewandowski again, right man in the right place, ball destined for the back of the net, destined to break more records! There comes Karim Benzema, almost single-handedly dragging Real Madrid to yet another Champions League triumph, yet another La Liga title, scoring with more dazzling skill and pace at 34 than he did as a 20-year-old sensation for Lyon. There’s Kylian Mbappe, accelerating like an Olympic sprinter to meet a Messi throughball!
The coming season could turn out to be even more astonishing, as two young players with incredible prowess step up. I’m talking about Liverpool’s new striker, the Uruguayan Darwin Nunez, 22, and the Norwegian Erling Haaland, 21, newly signed by Manchester City.
Nunez has it all. He is powerful and fast. His finishing is preternaturally clinical. Playing for Benfica, he gave his new club a harrowing time in the recently concluded Champions League. He is 6’2 ”but moves like someone whose center of gravity is much lower, changing direction and leaving defenders slipping in his wake. 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 play.
Haaland, meanwhile, has it all and then some. The man’s a ghost. No one – not Salah or Benzema or Lewandowski – can slip behind defenders, slip into the blind spots inside the box, the way 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-scoring record is barely believable. He first came to global attention as a 19-year-old with Red Bull Salzburg, when he scored a hattrick on his Champions League debut, following it up by scoring in his next four Europe games, becoming the first teenager to score in five consecutive Champions League games.
In the next season, with Borussia Dortmund, the German club that’s becoming the new finishing school for fine young footballing talent, he finished as the top scorer in the Champions League. He’s also the fastest in history to 100 top-flight goals, which he achieved in 146 games for club and country, better than Mbappe (180 games), Messi (200) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (245).
It is perhaps no coincidence that Haaland, who is so good at ghosting into space behind defenders, was coached in his formative years by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose poaching and positioning sense allowed Manchester United to wriggle out of many sticky situations when the club was at the top of its powers.
Haaland’s father, Alf-Inge Haaland or Alfie, was a Manchester City player too. The man —basically a tree-trunk neck and a boulder-like jaw atop a barrel of muscle – terrorized the Premier League in the late ’90s, playing as a defender and midfielder for Nottingham, Leeds and finally City. Alfie’s career was famously ended by a horrendous premeditated tackle by Roy Keane in a Manchester derby in 2001 (Keane smashed into his right leg with both studs, though technically it was a left knee injury from before that spelled the end of Alfie’s football). It’s a bit ironic because in most other circumstances, it was Alfie who threatened to end the careers of others with his violent tackling.
If anyone has any nostalgia left for the “good old days” when tackling laws were laxer, please watch the awkward video that City has released of Haaland and his dad watching old clips of Alfie playing. As one clip after another shows his father scything into forwards, Haaland has a look of shock on his face. Alfie has the smile of a person who knows deep down that he was wrong, but has decided to ride it out as if it was nothing.
At one point, when Alfie chuckles at a particularly horrid tackle, Haaland lets out a disapproving grunt. “You would have ended my career,” he tells his father.