MANCHESTER, England, AP – The contrast could hardly have been more stark.
While Erling Haaland plundered his latest hat-trick in a season that threatens to see him smash Premier League scoring records, Cristiano Ronaldo sat, glum-faced, on the sidelines.
Here was confirmation of a passing of the guard. We have entered the Haaland era, with the reigns of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi cast aside.
The Manchester City striker has the scoring power of those two greats at their height.
He is playing for, arguably, the most talented team in club soccer – and in Kevin de Bruyne, has a provider of laser precision.
Haaland's three goals in a 6-3 rout of Ronaldo's Manchester United on Sunday pushed his total to 17 in 11 games for the Premier League champion – 10 if the Community Shield is discounted. It is a mark of his devastating threat.
With 14 in the league, he is on course to surpass the 23 scored by last season’s joint Golden Boot winners, Mo Salah and Son Heung-Min, in just six games’ time.
Brentford at the Etihad Stadium on November 12 could be that moment. But given Haaland’s feats already, it seems unlikely he will have to wait so long.
It all just feels too easy for the 22-year-old, who at 1.93 meters (6-foot-4) tall towers over most rivals – and weighing in at 86.17kg (189 pounds), has the power to brush off the attentions of any center back who can get close to him.
That is before his break-neck turn of pace is taken into account, with just a couple of strides of his daunting gait taking him away from opponents, as well as the dexterity to reach the ball in areas he has no right to do so. See his “Kung-Fu” goal against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League last month.
It creates a corridor of possibility unlike any striker in the game right now. Haaland is like playing a video game in cheat mode. If the ball is anywhere near his vicinity in the final third, the goal is at threat.
It seems impossible to imagine the record of 34 Premier League goals set by Andy Cole and Alan Shearer will not fall this season.
Ronaldo’s highest number was 31, while Sergio Aguero, City’s all-time leading goal-scorer, never managed more than 26.
To put Haaland’s numbers into context, Messi and Ronaldo still remain the benchmark.
Messi’s finest campaign saw him score an incredible 73 goals in all competitions for Barcelona in 2011-12, including 50 in the Spanish league.
Ronaldo was at his most prolific in 2014-15 for Real Madrid, when he struck 61.
But Haaland is on course to threaten those figures. In the league, he is tracking at 66 goals for a 38-game campaign.
The big question mark hangs over his fitness. Various muscular issues forced him to miss extended periods for Dortmund – but there have been no such concerns at the early stage of his City career.
Guardiola puts that down to the manner in which City’s medical department has handled him.
“Last season he could not play many games, he was injured all the time,” said the Catalan. “Arrive here and we have incredible physios. Thanks to them he can play every 90 minutes.
“One of the most important departments is the doctors and physios and they help, so thank you to them. Last season Dortmund couldn’t do it but we can do it.”
Specialist attention has included City doctor Mario Pafundi joining up with Haaland on international duty to maintain his routine.
That has been done with the blessing of Norway’s head coach, Stale Solbakken, who now finds himself handling a player on the verge of becoming a global icon.
Media members who follow the national team have spoken of increased security and the delayed announcement of news conferences involving Haaland to avoid a clamour of journalists fascinated by the forward.
Haaland’s profile has only risen since his $63 million transfer to City – but he has been a player groomed for stardom.
‘Team Haaland,’ which closely guides his career has plotted his path – from rejecting a move to Manchester United in 2019, to opting for City last summer despite interest from Real Madrid.
His father, former Leeds United and City midfielder Alf-Inge, oversees his son’s affairs.
Former Southampton striker Egil Ostenstad, who went into banking after his playing career, is available for financial advice. Coincidentally Ostenstad also scored a hat-trick against United in a 6-3 win for Southampton back in 1996.
Alf-Inge’s best man Ivar Eggja is also part of the team and accompanied the player to his City unveiling in the summer.
Rafaela Pimenta, the lawyer who worked with the late super agent Mino Raiola, is also a key figure.
After delivering him to the Etihad, where Guardiola hopes he will be the missing piece in the club’s pursuit of a first Champions League title, Team Haaland’s next job is to secure what could be one of soccer’s biggest-ever boot endorsements.
His deal with Nike has expired – sparking a scramble between the biggest sportwear manufacturers to secure their place on his feet.
He has been seen in different brands since joining City, including Nike, Adidas and Puma.
Those companies are desperate to land Haaland, even though he will not be around on the biggest showcase of all – the World Cup.
Norway’s failure to qualify for Qatar means he will be resting, while the world’s top players compete in the middle of what will be a heavily-congested campaign due to the disruption to the club calendar.
That mid-season break has the potential to mean Haaland is even sharper when the Premier League resumes in December.
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James Robson, The Associated Press