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Salzburg hotshot Haaland has 17 goals in 10 games - Is he ready for the big time?

12:00 BST 01/10/2019
Erling Haaland RB Salzburg
The 19-year-old forward has already scored four hat-tricks this season as he prepares to face off against Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday

If you're not aware of Erling Braut Haaland by now, then where have you been?

Granted, Barcelona's own teenage sensation, Ansu Fati, has been making his fair share of headlines of late, but there is no hotter property in Europe right now than Salzburg's 19-year-old striker.

Haaland's hat-trick against Genk on the opening matchday of this season's Champions League grabbed the attention of football fans across the globe as he became the youngest player since Wayne Rooney to mark their debut in Europe's premier club competition with a treble.

Unsurprisingly, within a matter of hours, he was being linked with the game's top clubs, with both Barcelona and Manchester United cited as having had scouts in the crowd at the Red Bull Arena.

It is not the first time that United have been mentioned as a potential suitor, with the Old Trafford outfit having reportedly shown an interest back in the summer of 2018, along with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, before Haaland ultimately swapped Molde for Salzburg later that season.

But is the son of former Leeds United and Manchester City defender Alf-Inge ready to make such a step up in class?

Standing at 6'3" and already possessing the body of a man in the prime of his life, there is no doubt that Haaland could stand up to the physical demands of any league in Europe.

He also seems to possess the requisite but rare elite mentality, though there remains a slight immaturity to his personality.

A particularly curt interview with television reporters in the aftermath of the Genk match went viral on social media, while he recently commented to Sky Sports after his hat-trick against Wolfsberger in August that he would "take the ball home and let it be my girlfriend for the night".

He was even spotted listening to a familiar tune in his car ahead of Genk's visit, according to defender Max Wober.

"Erling is crazy. Last night, our captain was walking with his daughter. Then, a car stopped. Erling was inside. He rolled down the window and there he was, listening to the Champions League anthem!" Wober told reporters two weeks ago.

It is clear that Haaland has a unique character that should not be beaten out of him, but it is likely to take a certain kind of manager to ensure he remains on the right side of the 'lovable rogue' line.

For all the talk about his personality, it will be what Haaland does on the pitch that will determine if he delivers on his early promise.

His record of 17 goals in 10 games so far this season, including four hat-tricks, suggests a keen eye for goal. Of course, that was already in evidence when he netted nine goals in one match for Norway against Honduras during the summer's Under-19 World Cup.

He has since been capped twice at senior level by his country as he and Martin Odegaard look to usher in an exciting new era for Norwegian football.

Comfortable both coming deep to hold the ball up or sprinting in behind opposition defenders to run onto through balls, the term 'handful' was created to describe just how difficult Haaland has proven to play against.

His detractors will point to the strength, or lack thereof, provided by opponents within the Austrian Bundesliga, while it is true that Genk was hardly the most daunting of Champions League openers.

The sternest test of his career to date should come on Wednesday at Anfield as he lines up against Liverpool and gets the opportunity to go up against Ballon d'Or frontrunner Virgil van Dijk, particularly as he has played just 31 minutes since his headline-grabbing Genk display and missed Saturday's win over Austria Vienna with a lung infection.

Succeed on Merseyside and any final doubts as to whether he is ready to play on the game's grandest stages will be gone.

Of course, to do so, he will have to leave Salzburg, but where would he likely go next should he depart in January or at the end of the season?

Logic would suggest that RB Leipzig is the next step on his career path. 

It is no secret that Salzburg's most impressive performers almost always end up at Leipzig, who are also owned by Red Bull, with around 20 players having swapped the Austrian champions for the Bundesliga side in recent times.

Leipzig may also be looking for a new forward next season. Even though Timo Werner signed a new contract over the summer, the Bayern Munich target is expected to leave Julian Nagelsmann's squad at the end of the 2019-20 campaign.

While their styles are not wholly comparable, Werner and Haaland are both dynamic forwards and signing such an exciting young attacking talent would certainly go some way towards making up for the loss of Germany's first-choice No.9.

But what if Haaland is already too good to go to Leipzig, a club widely regarded as a finishing school for the world's next big stars due to their standing in one of Europe's top five leagues, their culture of excellent coaching and now regular appearances in European competitions?

The fact that Haaland has already linked up with super-agent Mino Raiola suggests that a far bigger transfer saga may be on the horizon, with United remaining the club many believe would be the perfect fit for him, given their lack of an out-and-out No.9 and the fact that the focus of their rebuild is young players.

The Old Trafford links are further strengthened by Haaland's relationship with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whom he played under when the Red Devils boss was manager of Molde. United have yet to replace Romelu Lukaku, who left for Inter during the summer, and Solskjaer has previously compared Haaland to the Belgium international.

However, Haaland's family ties could be an issue.

While much has been made of Haaland being a Leeds fan, having been born in the West Yorkshire city, players nowadays tend to ignore their own allegiances when negotiating transfers.

His father, however, has a fractious relationship with the Old Trafford crowd due to his long-running feud with former United captain Roy Keane.

The Irishman damaged ligaments while fouling Haaland senior in a game at Elland Road but claimed subsequently that the former Leeds man had accused him of faking injury.

Keane took revenge at Old Trafford four years later, with a vicious foul that Haaland later claimed played a part in him being forced to retire from the game through injury, in 2003.

"Did that tackle end my career?" Haaland asked in the Daily Mail in 2008. "Well, I never played a full game again, did I? It seems like a great coincidence, don't you think?"

Of course, Haaland junior may not consider his father's past when it comes to deciding his own future. Raiola's relationship with United could actually be of greater significance.

Having previously enjoyed a strong rapport with the 20-time English champions while Jose Mourinho was in charge, the agent's attempts to find a new club for Paul Pogba during the summer upset the Old Trafford hierarchy.

So, if not United, what team would be a good fit for Haaland, his family and his agent?

Gonzalo Higuain has a long association with Maurizio Sarri but it is clear that Juventus are in need of a new and young No.9.

What's more, Raiola has close ties with the Bianconeri, and Haaland would obviously benefit enormously from playing and training alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.

Barcelona, meanwhile, are still looking for a long-term Luis Suarez replacement, and having both Haaland and Fati in the same attack would be a mouth-watering prospect for Blaugrana fans.

Barca would seem the most logical fit right now, but there is no doubt that, given the opportunity, every single one of Europe's top clubs would be interested in signing a player of Haaland's obvious potential.

It is now just a matter of when, not if, he takes that next step on the path to superstardom.