Mbappe, Haaland... Foden? 'The Stockport Iniesta' proving he belongs among Europe's new superstars

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As the players of Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund made their way from the field at the Etihad Stadium last week, all eyes were on two particular individuals hugging and chatting in the middle of the pitch.

The subject of the conversation between Phil Foden and Erling Haaland will remain secret for now, as the pair covered their mouths to thwart any potential lip-readers.

But we can at least make an educated guess.

It is possible that Foden was trying to convince the Norway striker to join City this summer, with speculation increasing that Haaland will leave the Bundesliga behind this summer.

But it is more likely that the gestures were simple show of respect as two of the world's best young talents reflected on taking their first steps into the latter stages of the Champions League after successfully justifying why there is such huge anticipation surrounding them.

Both were making their first starts in the quarter-finals of Europe's premier club competition, and with the pair still just 20, it is certain to be the first of many appearances for the duo over the next decade and beyond.

For Haaland in particular, the scrutiny heading into the encounter was huge.

After scoring 49 goals in his first 52 Dortmund appearances, Haaland has joined Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe as being annointed one of the successors to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi; the future best players in the world and dominators of the Ballon d’Or.

Erling Haaland Phil Foden GFX

While he did not find the net at the Etihad last Tuesday, Haaland showed why he is generating so much excitement, as well as interest from the biggest clubs in Europe.

The ex-Red Bull Salzburg man created Dortmund's equaliser for Marco Reus with a clever pass, while he showed his own direct threat with a bustling run during which he shrugged off Ruben Dias, only to be denied by a smart save from Ederson.

Fewer than 24 hours later, Mbappe illustrated exactly why he is being tipped to form the other half of a golden new rivalry as the 22-year-old underlined his own quality with two goals in PSG’s 3-2 victory at Bayern Munich.

Foden, meanwhile, has been spoken of as a potential Ballon d’Or contender by some, but is viewed as being largely on the fringes of the conversation given Mbappe and Haaland's prodigious goalscoring records.

The biggest individual prizes in world football more often than not go to those who put the ball in the net, with Messi and Ronaldo having shared 11 of the last 12 awards after seasons in which they scored at least 45 goals.

A similar pattern likely would have continued in 2020 had the award not been cancelled, as FIFA The Best and Goal 50 winner Robert Lewandowski was deemed to be the run-away favourite after scoring 55 goals for Bayern last season.

As such, Luka Modric remains the only player to have broken the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly after his win in 2018, with his exploits in helping lead Real Madrid to Champions League glory and Croatia to the World Cup final from midfield deemed worthy of the prize.

It is clear that creative midfielders have to be exceptional to win the prize, and with Mbappe and Haaland having already emerged as early frontrunners for future years, Foden’s chances of winning the ultimate individual honour already look slim.

'The Stockport Iniesta' need only look at the playmaker to whom he has been compared to see that.

Phil Foden Andres Iniesta GFX

Despite scoring the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final and his consistent excellence for Barcelona around the turn of the decade, Andres Iniesta only ever made it onto the podium twice. In contrast, since 2006, Messi and Ronaldo have only missed out on a place in the top three twice between them.

Foden, though, has the potential to surpass his the legendary Spaniard, and has already done so in the scoring stakes. Iniesta never scored more than nine goals in a season, but Foden has 12 already this campaign.

Matching Iniesta's creativity, though,remains a big ask, though the early signs are massively encouraging, particularly after Foden's fearless display against Dortmund.

Along with Kevin De Bruyne, the England international was City’s biggest threat, particularly in the second half when he terrorised opposing full-back Mateu Moray.

There was no signs of nerves from the youngster, and two brilliant runs could have led to goals before he himself kept his composure to calmly steer in a 90th-minute winner that could prove crucial to the tie.

A similar performance in the second leg in Germany on Wednesday, then, would confirm why he should be considered alongside the most exciting talents in the world game.

Just imagine, then, what he will be like when he starts playing in his best position!

Foden's most memorable moments in a City shirt have a come as a left winger, where he has deposed Raheem Sterling as Pep Guardiola's preferred starter, while he is likely to play on the right-hand side for England at this summer’s European Championship.

Long-term, however, Guardiola sees Foden most influencing games as a number 10.

“Phil can play in both positions,” the City boss said in February. “I have said many times he is so young. Phil just needs time to improve playing inside.

"When you play as a winger, you have to play at one tempo and when you play inside, you have to play in another one.

“When he gets this balance he will be 10 times more extraordinary as a player. It’s just a question of time.”

Phil Foden quote GFX

Guardiola has never hidden his excitement at Foden's potential, even if some believe he held the City academy graudate back for too long.

But the Catalan has also driven home the message that the midfielder can only get to the top if he maintains his dedication - a message that Foden has clearly taken on board.

Shy and football-obsessed, he does not yet have the extravagant personality or confidence to mark his goals with a crying celebration or Buddha pose like Mbappe or Haaland.

That could count against him when individual prizes are up for grabs down the line, while City players do not always tend to perform well when end-of-season or year awards are handed out.

Despite winning four Premier League titles in nine years, De Bruyne was the first ever City man to be named PFA Player of the Year in 2019-20. The previous campaign, Sterling became the first City player to win FWA Footballer of the Year in 50 years.

As for the Ballon d’Or, the closest any City player has come to the award was when De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva finished ninth in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Foden would do well to better that this year, even if he is lining-up for City in the Champions League final in Istanbul on May 29 - the day after his 21st birthday.

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That said, if he is, it will mean that neither Haaland or Mbappe will be there. Nor, of course, will Messi or Ronaldo.

The new era of footballing superstars is upon us, and Foden is showing that he is worthy of those Iniesta comparisons.

Dethroning Mbappe and Haaland promises to be tough, but early signs are that he can win the one award the Spaniard never could.