It is not often manager Pep Guardiola heaps praise on individual players at Manchester City, certainly not to the extent where he might put them in the same category as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
This is especially true of comparisons with the former, a player who helped Guardiola to many of his greatest managerial triumphs at Barcelona. The Argentine forward, who hit 73 goals for Barca in all competitions during the 2011-12 season, is the greatest player of all-time, according to the City boss.
Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo’s highest tally for a season, meanwhile, was 61 for Real Madrid in 2014-15, and he has consistently rivaled Messi in terms of standing and statistics.
While constantly demanding his team strive to achieve more, Guardiola usually tends to temper expectations when it comes to individual achievements. Yet as City prepare for Arsenal’s visit to the Etihad on Wednesday for what is surely a pivotal meeting between the Premier League’s top two sides, Erling Haaland’s 48 goals in 42 matches during his debut season for the Sky Blues cannot be ignored or brushed aside.
The 22-year-old’s remarkable statistics have prompted much debate about just how good he is and whether he might reach the heights of football icons such as Messi, 35, and Al-Nassr’s 38-year-old forward, Ronaldo.
City team-mate Bernardo Silva, who plays alongside Ronaldo for Portugal, said Haaland has the “Midas Touch” and everything he touches turns to goal, rather than gold.
“The goal figures, it’s unbelievable; it’s Cristiano and Messi level, that amount of goals,” Silva said, speaking exclusively to Arab News. “Hopefully Erling can keep going that way because we need his goals until the last game of the season.
“He has definitely got the same mentality as Cristiano, always wanting to be in the box, always wanting to score. He doesn’t care if he touches the ball one or two times, when he touches he scores. He’s just a proper striker.”
Silva said that his teammates know that if they can put the ball into the box, Haaland will be waiting to snap up the opportunities.
“We knew what Erling could do before he arrived because he’s been doing that for a few years before he joined us, in Norway, Austria and Germany,” he added. “We watched him and we played against him, but you never know when he comes here, what level he can get to.
“But what he’s done so far this season has been amazing and we are really happy to have him with us. He’s definitely a special player and he’s helping us very much. I hope he can get even better.”
So special is his teammate, Silva believes that Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain’s 24-year-old Kylian Mbappe, and perhaps Real Madrid’s 22-year-old Brazilian, Vinicius Junior, might develop an exciting and fearsome future forward rivalry in the manner of Messi and Ronaldo.
“Probably yes,” said Silva, who played with France captain Mbappe at Monaco before joining City in 2017. “You have a few players apart from them (Haaland and Mbappe) who are doing very well, like Vinicius as well. But it’s true those two are very young and doing very well.”
Silva said that aside from their shared hunger for goals, Haaland and Mbappe are two very different players, style-wise.
“Kylian is more of a dribbler with the ball and Haaland is mainly inside the box and like a proper striker, but both are very very good at what they do,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy to match the level that Cristiano and Messi did but they are up there at the top.”
Having Kevin De Bruyne in midfield to help create chances will no doubt help Haaland’s cause with City.
When the Belgium playmaker provided the assist for Haaland’s goal against Bayern Munich last week, to seal a 4-1 aggregate victory and book City a mouthwatering Champions League semi-final clash with Real Madrid, it was the 12th time De Bruyne had done so this season.
“Erling has a special combination with Kevin, who loves those kind of players like Erling,” said Silva. “Because when he’s got the ball you need to make runs and Erling is so strong, so quick going in behind. It’s a perfect combination and they are doing so well, as we have seen this season.”
Haaland’s goals have helped propel City to within reach of lifting the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League trophies, a treble achieved by only one other English club, Manchester United, in 1999 under Sir Alex Ferguson.
While City have fallen short of their own high standards at times this season, they appear to have regained their focus during a potentially defining period, putting together a 16-match unbeaten run.
A 13th victory during that impressive streak came on Saturday in the form of a 3-0 success over Championship side Sheffield United, to book an FA Cup final date with Manchester United on June 3.
Next though, they will host league leaders Arsenal, managed by former City assistant Mikel Arteta, with two games in hand but a five-point deficit to make up.
This is often the time, late in a season, when their experience and quality has come to the fore and why Guardiola’s men have won four league titles in five seasons, including two on the final day.
“We’ve been there before,” said Silva. “The last few years we have had winning runs of 20 games, or been unbeaten, and now we are in good form again.
“We hope to keep it that way because we want to win the trophies.”
Most goals in a season in all competitions
1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona) – 2011/12 – 73 goals.
Scored a La Liga-record 50 times in 37 games and 14 times in the Champions League. However, Barca finished second in the league and only reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.
2. Ferenc Deak (Szentlorinci) – 1945/46 – 66 goals
The Hungarian forward hit 66 league goals in 34 matches, a record for the number of goals scored in a European league season.
3. Gerd Muller (Bayern Munich) – 1972/73 – 66 goals
The German legend scored 36 league goals, seven in the German Cup, 12 in the League Cup and 11 in the European Cup.