With Sergio Aguero leaving at the end of the season, Manchester City is on the look out for a first-choice striker for the first time in 10 years.
The player likely on top of the club’s wish-list is heading to Etihad Stadium next week.
A major subplot in Tuesday’s Champions League quarterfinal between City and Borussia Dortmund — particularly in light of the announcement about Aguero’s departure — centers around Erling Haaland, one of the standard-bearers of a new generation of soccer superstars emerging in the final throes of the careers of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The 20-year-old Norway international is putting up scoring numbers for Dortmund that proved way beyond Messi and Ronaldo at that age, in both the Champions League — where he recently became the youngest player to reach 20 goals in the competition — and at domestic league level, through his 34 goals in 36 games in the Bundesliga.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” City manager Pep Guardiola said of Haaland soon after the Champions League draw was made. “He is one of the best in the world at his age.”
That the next stage of Haaland’s career could come under Guardiola at City, the soon-to-be-crowned English Premier League champion, makes sense for a number of reasons.
Firstly, City is guaranteed to be needing a striker to replace Aguero, who is not just the scorer of the club’s greatest goal — the stoppage-time winner against Queens Park Rangers that clinched the Premier League title in 2012 — but the club’s greatest goal-scorer with 257 in 384 appearances.
Gabriel Jesus’ performances over the past four years have shown the Brazil international does not have the attributes or quality of finishing to be a like-for-like replacement for Aguero.
“I have to go more in the box,” Jesus told British broadcaster Sky Sports on Wednesday. “Sometimes I don’t go in the box, that’s why I don’t score a lot.”
Behind Aguero and Jesus, City has only one out-and-out striker in the squad in 18-year-old Liam Delap, who has never started a Premier League game.
Dortmund, meanwhile, is struggling to qualify for next season’s Champions League through its position in the Bundesliga, with the team fifth — four points behind fourth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt. That would be a worst-case scenario for Dortmund, depriving the team of a huge money-earner and Haaland the chance to appear on the biggest stage in club soccer.
Then there are Haaland’s links to City through his father, Alf-Inge, who played for the club before retiring in 2003 at the age of 30 because of injury.
Add in the fact that City is among the world’s richest clubs — one of the few which could realistically afford to buy Haaland during a pandemic that has devastated the finances of even some of Europe’s top teams — and the potential for the transfer materializing is strong.
City, however, has never paid the kind of transfer fee that is likely to be required to take Haaland out of Dortmund. The club’s record signing in pounds is Ruben Dias, a center back who joined from Benfica for 64 million pounds ($78 million) last year. Haaland might cost close to double that if he is to move this summer.
City has spent heavily on players under its Abu Dhabi ownership, but never buys ready-made superstars for world-record fees. Its 10 most expensive signings have all been around 50-64 million pounds.
Do Guardiola and City rate Haaland so highly that the club would change its approach to spending? His age certainly fits the profile, ensuring it would be a wise long-term investment.
Otherwise, City could go for a cheaper, less celebrated striker — perhaps Southampton and England player Danny Ings — to share minutes with Jesus, who, while hard-working, has not proved clinical enough to demand inclusion as the regular starting striker.
The Brazilian said he would be working hard to change that.
“He goes onto the pitch and he scores, he’s more (of a) striker than me,” Jesus said of Aguero. “I can say that because I work with him every day and I play a lot with him.
“When we play together I score one, he scores two. I score two and he scores three. I think I’m going to learn a lot in these next years to become a proper striker who scores a lot.”
Guardiola has often played without a recognized striker this season while Aguero has been missing because of injury, using wingers and attacking midfielders in a fluid front three. He is likely to do the same against Dortmund, and again in the semifinals if City manages to reach that stage for the first time under Guardiola.
But Guardiola has previously said he needs the option of an out-and-out striker. And the Spanish coach must surely have had one in mind when he agreed to let Aguero go following a conversation with the Argentina striker after training on Monday.
It will be a major surprise if that isn’t Haaland.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80