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In a little less than a year, Erling Haaland has gone from highly coveted young prodigy to nothing less than the heir apparent to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the most ruthlessly efficient scorer in all of planet futbol.
Haaland smashed another UEFA Champions League record last week, when he bagged two goals in Borussia Dortmund’s 3-0 group stage win over Belgian side Club Brugge. They were his fifth and six in just four Champions League games this season. With 16 career Champions League goals in all, Haaland, now 20, has scored that many in fewer matches than anyone in the history of Europe’s top club competition. It took him just 12 games.
Last year, he became the first teenager to score in his first five appearances in the tournament. In the Bundesliga, he’s scored 23 times in 23 games — the the sort of consistency that has made Messi and Ronaldo the sport’s preeminent stars.
“I have to score as many as I can, as fast as possible,” Haaland said to CBS last week.
Yet to hear Jesse Marsch tell it, as otherworldly as Haaland’s performances have been since he joined the German titans in January, the rangy Norwegian striker — who last week won the Golden Boy award as Europe’s top young player — has the potential to become even better.
“He’s phenomenal,” Marsch said in a recent interview with Yahoo Sports. “Young players, they can’t rely on their talent. They have to have the desire and the work ethic and the belief and the commitment to do everything they can every day to be the best. And Erling does that at a higher level than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Marsch knows Haaland better than most. FC Salzburg’s Wisconsin-born manager — who last year became the first American manager in the Champions League — spent the first half of his maiden season with the reigning Austrian champions coaching Haaland before the star striker was sold to Dortmund for just over $20 million last winter, a transfer fee that already looks like a heist. After tearing apart the Bundesliga, where he averaged a goal every 71 minutes in the second half of the campaign, he’s now valued at five times that figure.
Haaland’s reputation preceded him before he and Marsch met in July of 2019. He’d made just two cameos for Salzburg the previous season (scoring once in 82 total minutes ), but generated headlines around the globe earlier that summer, when he scored nine goals for Norway in a single match at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
He had the pedigree as the son of former Manchester City midfielder Alf-Inge Haaland. He had all the tools, too — straight-line speed, a supple touch with both feet, a scorching shot and a muscular, 6-foot-4 frame.
“If you just talk about his gifts, his talents, you would right away put him in the top 1 percent of all the players in the world,” said Marsch, who swears he knew Haaland also had the determination to get to the top minutes into their first conversation. “When you know the man, you know he can separate himself even from that 1 percent.”
Haaland holds Marsch in similarly high regard despite their short time together. The two have stayed in regular contact.
“He was an amazing manager for me — I’m lucky to have gotten to know him as a coach but also as a person,” Haaland said. “He’s an amazing guy.”
As a Champions League coach, Marsch has learned the hard way that his words carry weight. His off-the-cuff comments about how Chelsea manager Frank Lampard viewed U.S. national team headliner Christian Pulisic when Pulisic first arrived in London recently created an international incident. So he’s cautious about what he says next.
“Erling’s done great at Dortmund, but the way that Dortmund plays — and I have to be careful when I say stuff like this, because I realize now that when I say things it goes worldwide, which is an uncomfortable thing for me, but I’ll try to say it the right way — they’re a team that dominates the game with possession,” Marsch said.
“Erling is good enough to play that kind of football. But playing transition football is his real strength. In open space, he is unstoppable. So in that way, there’s still a lot more that Dortmund can get out of Erling, and that’s incredible to say given how good he’s been.”
Marsch’s Salzburg side, meantime, is leading the Austrian Bundesliga again this season but lost to Bayern Munich in the Champions League last week for the second time in as many meetings. Advancing to the Round of 16 isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, with Atletico Madrid only sitting on five points to Salzburg’s one. But it will take a win at Lokomotiv Moscow on Tuesday, which would set up a potentially huge home fixture against Atleti to close the group stage on Dec. 9.
“We’re playing with a really young team and they are performing incredibly well, but it’s just some of the little things that get away from us,” Marsch said. “Giving away easy penalties, giving away easy fouls. The intelligence on the pitch is massive in these games.”
Marsch thinks his team might be due for some luck, though; last season, with Haaland leading the line, they took a point from Napoli in Italy and lost a 4-3 thriller at Liverpool. Having experienced the top level up close, he’s also realistic what his team is up against when they meet opponents at the pinnacle of the game.
“We haven’t knocked off that big opponent yet,” Marsch said. “So we’re close, but as close as we are, it’s like we’re so far away.”
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