Erling Haaland is in a rather playful mood and poor Jack Grealish is about to cop for it. The man who was brought to Manchester City to help get them over the line in the Champions League has struck up quite the friendship with England’s first £100 million footballer and, together, they have had plenty of fun at the expense of team-mates this season. But Haaland has spotted an opportunity to tease Grealish and he is not about to pass it up.
The conversation has shifted to the Community Shield back in July, when City lost 3-1 to Liverpool and Haaland was upstaged on his debut by the Merseysiders’ own new striker, Darwin Núñez. It was not the best of starts for the Norwegian, and criticism followed. But, tongue firmly in cheek and a smile developing, he says he can just about forgive himself one bad game when it took others he knows a full season to get to grips with life at City.
“I told Jack that sometimes players need maybe a year or something to come into a new league and new team and everything and sometimes players come directly in and perform,” Haaland says, desperately trying to suppress his laughter. “I told him this …”
Haaland pauses for dramatic effect, allowing everyone to enjoy his lighthearted dig about Grealish’s difficult time last season, before continuing: “So, yeah, that was one game. The Community Shield I missed a couple of big chances. It can happen. It will happen again. What can you do? Nothing. You have to focus on the next thing, the next game and that’s what I did. I scored two goals in the next game … so it was still not a bad start.”
West Ham were the first to suffer at the feet of Haaland this season and Inter Milan, he hopes, will represent the final glorious act in a quite extraordinary debut season in England that has featured 52 goals and as many defences smashed as records. Victory at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul on Saturday night would end City’s wait to win that elusive first Champions League – and seal the Treble with it – and Haaland makes no attempt to mask the personal responsibility he feels to ensure that happens. Relaxed, happy and good humoured, City’s goal machine may give the impression of being the most chilled out man in the room but, deep inside, there is pressure.
“Of course I feel pressure,” he says, candidly. “I would lie if I said I didn’t. You say it yourself and it’s true - they won the Premier League without me, they won every trophy [apart from this] without me. So I’m here to try to do a thing that the club has never done before, and I’ll do my best. It would mean everything.”
Back to the Community Shield for a moment and, after a difficult afternoon, Haaland had reassured Pep Guardiola he would deliver for him with a conviction that was disarming. “Don’t worry, I’ll score goals,” he told his manager. No one could probably imagine quite how many, though. His 36 in the Premier League saw him eclipse Alan Shearer and Andy Cole in the record books – that pair each scored 34 when teams played 42 games, not 38 like now – and he has 12 in nine outings in the Champions League, and with another chance to swell that tally on the biggest stage of all.
Haaland, though, is adamant that he did not set himself a target this season and, while he did not expect to top half a century of goals, he admits now he feels he should have scored more. “No, I didn’t expect to score this many goals but, again, I could have scored more,” he said. “I’ve been missing a lot of chances, so I could have scored more. That’s the truth.”
Which leads us, nicely, to his current “drought”. Haaland has managed just one goal in his last seven appearances and you have to go back five years to when he was still at Molde, and before his explosion at Red Bull Salzburg and Borussia Dortmund subsequently, for the last time he found himself on this sort of barren run. The man himself just shrugs, though, when the statistic is raised and offers an alternative and somewhat persuasive viewpoint.
“You can think of it as one goal in seven games or 52 goals in 52 games and eight assists,” he says. “You can think of it in both ways. I’m not stressed. I feel really good.”
Haaland is no less formidable in the flesh than he looks on television. He bounds over and his giant presence fills the room. There is a buzz around him. He knows he is a superstar and he has fully embraced the role, the fame and attention. Everyone wants a piece of him. One reporter is struggling to get a question in among the rush to quiz the striker. “You’ll have to speak louder,” Haaland jokes, sensing the journalist’s frustration.
He has done so much in such a short space of time it is easy to forget he is still only 22 but he is fresh faced and has that exuberance and invincibility of youth. His overwhelming feeling on winning the Premier League was one of “relief”, given City had won four of the previous five without him, and the FA Cup was another welcome piece of silverware, but there is no doubting the Champions League is the one he really wants.
His first real memory of the competition was watching Manchester United beat Chelsea on penalties in Moscow in 2008, aged seven, and said to himself then he wanted a slice of that. “When I saw the celebrations – I wanted to do that as well,” he said. “I have been dreaming and thinking of it my whole life. I am getting closer and closer now.”
Haaland was listening to the Champions League anthem in his car the night before he scored a first half hat-trick for Salzburg against Genk in the competition in 2019. “There is a video of me doing that,” he says. “You can search it up!”
He even set the anthem on his alarm clock so he could wake up to the music. “I love this competition and I like it [the anthem] – I enjoy it,” he adds. “And it’s also a really nice song.”
Haaland would watch City in Europe before he arrived and began licking his lips at the thought of the goals he would score with such service. The link up with Kevin De Bruyne has proven particularly deadly. Just ask Arsenal, crushed 4-1 at the Etihad in April by that rampaging pair. “I think it’s a special connection, yeah,” Haaland said of his partnership with the Belgium midfielder. “There are so many good players here and so many players who can assist me and make me a better player. It’s not only Kevin but, as you say, he’s a really good footballer.”
Haaland calls Guardiola a “detail freak” and feels his all round game has improved under the Catalan. Having already been named the FWA Football Writer of the Year, Haaland would appear a shoo-in for the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award and will surely be in the reckoning for the Ballon d’Or. Not that he says he is giving that much attention. “I don’t think of this,” he said. “I think of winning the next game.”
He has not been immune from criticism this season, though. That Liverpool game aside, questions were being asked by some about his compatibility with Guardiola’s system after a 2-1 defeat to United in January but it looks faintly ridiculous now. Did he pay much attention to what was being said? “No, but I’m not stupid, I get things with me, of course,” he explained. “I don’t read anything because I think my brain would be a bit crazy if I was reading everything everyone is writing. I cannot do that but, of course, I get things with me – and then it’s even better to score in the next game.
“I think often it’s a good thing when people start criticising you. I scored every single game and then people started criticising me. That’s what happened basically. When people criticise you it’s just about trying to smile a bit and enjoy life.”
All that concerns Haaland now, though, is City making one final push towards greatness. “If you’d said we’d be in this scenario before the season, I wouldn’t have thought of it,” he said. “But, again, when you look at the team, how close they’ve been with every single trophy every single season, it’s not like it’s not been possible. We have been believing in ourselves ever since I came. Now it’s just one game left. I don’t know what more to say.”